Sweet lib­erty is in our hands

Vi­brant, beau­ti­ful and, above all, in­stantly recog­nis­able, Lib­erty prints have man­aged to stay in fash­ion for more than a cen­tury. Matthew Den­ni­son dis­cov­ers how they be­came im­printed on the Bri­tish con­scious­ness

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Lib­erty Lon­don (020–7734 1234; www.lib­erty­lon­don.com)

Lib­erty prints have man­aged to stay in fash­ion for more than a cen­tury, dis­cov­ers Matthew Den­ni­son

FROM the very be­gin­ning, Lib­erty fab­rics were all about colour: from its open­ing in 1875, the Lon­don de­part­ment store sold im­ported silks, no­table for their soft tex­tures and vi­brant, veg­etable-dyed hues, along­side ex­otic fab­rics sourced from as far afield as Ja­pan. ‘Lib­erty’s have peo­ple work­ing for them all over the Ori­en­tal world,’ a jour­nal­ist wrote at the time. ‘Quaint, parch­ment-skinned ped­lars are wan­der­ing through­out the length and breadth of China gath­er­ing to­gether an­cient em­broi­deries of won­der­ful colour­ings, and through­out Per­sia and among the tem­ples of In­dia the same thing is go­ing on.’

In the 1880s, Sir Arthur Lib­erty de­scribed ‘the Bri­tish dress­maker’ as ‘deadly op­posed’ to soft fab­rics: ‘She was ac­cus­tomed to work on hard, stiff lines, and the new ma­te­rial gave her more trou­ble.’ The shop’s de­cid­edly arty early clien­tele dis­agreed and Sir Arthur ploughed ahead with his own range of fab­rics.

It was ad­ver­tised as Lib­erty Art Fab­rics and em­ployed Thomas War­dle & Co, of Leek, Stafford­shire, as prin­ci­pal dyer and printer, with Ed­mund Lit­tler & Co, at Mer­ton Abbey on the banks of the River Wan­dle, south Lon­don, closer to home.

At least one early de­sign, a printed cot­ton of 1882 by Christo­pher Dresser, show­ing dragons against a fret­ted back­ground, suggests that Lib­erty didn’t con­sciously re­ject con­tem­po­rary dec­o­ra­tive styles. Over the course of the next decade, how­ever, the com­pany’s fab­rics swapped dragons for flow­ers and it was the ac­qui­si­tion of ex­ten­sive new premises at Che­sham House, Re­gent Street, that in­spired Sir Arthur to ex­pand his fledg­ling emporium to in­clude a cloth­ing de­part­ment in 1883.

Thus be­gan the evo­lu­tion of the dis­tinc­tive, florif­er­ous prints with which the Lib­erty name re­mains syn­ony­mous more than a cen­tury later, used to adorn ev­ery­thing from cur­tains and skirts to spec­ta­cle cases, egg cosies, Roberts ra­dios and pocket diaries. There have been de­sign col­lab­o­ra­tions with Vivi­enne West­wood, Nike and Bar­bour—the lat­ter re­sulted in a wax jacket trimmed with a Lib­erty ver­sion of Wil­liam Mor­ris’s Straw­berry Thief fab­ric of the 1880s.

Sir Arthur bought de­signs from a range of artists and man­u­fac­tur­ers and, in 1898, one of the com­pany’s di­rec­tors, John Howe, com­mented: ‘It is no mat­ter to us where a de­sign comes from, so long as it pos­sesses mer­its wor­thy to be put be­fore the pub­lic by the House of Lib­erty.’

Af­ter his ap­point­ment in 1889, John Llewellyn of Lib­erty’s silk de­part­ment com­mis­sioned de­signs ex­clu­sive to Lib­erty from de­sign­ers in­clud­ing Charles Voy­sey.

An early com­mer­cial re­la­tion­ship with Arthur Sil­ver’s

Sil­ver Stu­dio re­sulted in the pro­duc­tion of de­signs by Harry Nap­per, whose pat­terns, like those of Voy­sey, used stylised flow­ers and fo­liage in a man­ner that placed Lib­erty at the fore­front of evolv­ing Bri­tish taste. His 1902 Kim­ber­ley de­sign of large-scale pop­pies and swirling, acan­thus-like leaves was a Jacquard wo­ven cot­ton, pro­duced as fur­nish­ing fab­ric.

‘We flat­ter our­selves that we have cre­ated a new “English” pe­riod,’ Llewellyn noted of dec­o­rat­ing trends in 1898. He may have had in mind de­signs such as Lind­say But­ter­field’s Hy­drangeas of 1896, with its dense, all-over pat­tern of flow­er­heads and Mor­ris & Co-in­spired fo­liage. Even at the out­set, Lib­erty’s use of flo­ral mo­tifs was as­so­ci­ated with a quin­tes­sen­tial English­ness that its prod­ucts have re­tained.

The com­pany would prove both ad­vo­cate and ben­e­fi­ciary of the Art Nou­veau move­ment—sin­u­ous nat­u­ral forms trans­lated eas­ily into fab­ric and wall­pa­per pat­terns. Lib­erty’s cur­rent head of ar­chiv­ing, Anna Bu­ruma, at­tributes the ap­peal of the de­signs to their ‘in­no­va­tive and quirky’ qual­i­ties. In the first decades of the 20th cen­tury, those qual­i­ties were re­alised to the full in a se­ries of bold, flo­ral fab­rics that Lib­erty de­sign­ers of the 1960s would suc­cess­fully re­colour and re­brand as the Lo­tus Col­lec­tion, an as­pect of Swing­ing Six­ties cool tinged by nos­tal­gia.

By the late 1930s, Lib­erty fab­rics were so pop­u­lar and such a key as­pect of the shop’s stock in trade that a whole­sale com­pany, Lib­erty of Lon­don Prints, was formed to take ad­van­tage of grow­ing de­mand. De­signs in­creas­ingly erred on the side of con­ser­vatism, with more ex­per­i­men­tal pat­terns con­fined to silk scarves.

In the pre­vi­ous decade, one of the com­pany’s buy­ers, Wil­liam Haynes Porell, had dis­cov­ered a silken cot­ton yarn in Ethiopia, close to Lake Tana —branded as Tana Lawn, the fab­ric proved ide­ally suited for print­ing with multi-coloured, all-over de­signs and has been used con­tin­u­ously for Lib­erty-print cloth­ing, from chil­dren’s frocks to men’s ties.

In July 1941, ‘some­where in the coun­try’, Queen El­iz­a­beth posed for pho­to­graphs with her daugh­ters, Princesses El­iz­a­beth and Mar­garet Rose. The Queen wore three rows of pearls and a sum­mer frock of a Lib­erty Tana Lawn-style flo­ral pat­tern in pink, pur­ple and blue against a white ground. With the Sec­ond World War not yet at its half­way point, the colour pic­tures rep­re­sented pro­pa­ganda of the gen­tlest va­ri­ety.

For Lib­erty, a com­bi­na­tion of in­no­va­tion and care­ful re­vi­sion of de­signs in the com­pany’s ex­ten­sive ar­chives has con­trib­uted to its long-term sur­vival. To­day, its in­stantly recog­nis­able de­signs are printed onto a range of fab­rics, from vel­vet and linen mixes to Tana Lawn cot­ton and cord. New de­signs have been pro­duced along­side more ‘typ­i­cal’ pat­terns, which main­tain brand iden­tity de­spite chang­ing fash­ions—a key as­pect of Lib­erty phi­los­o­phy, ac­cord­ing to head of de­sign at Lib­erty Art Fab­rics, Emma Maw­ston.

The best-known pat­tern was French in ori­gin: Ian­the, an Art Nou­veau de­sign cre­ated by R. Beau­clair in 1900, was pos­si­bly in­spired by vi­o­lets. It was af­ter­wards re­drawn by David Haward’s stu­dio and has been pro­duced in colour­ways from shock­ing pink to ochre and ele­phant grey. In its orig­i­nal colour­way of mid-blue, bur­gundy and pur­ple, it is a sig­na­ture Lib­erty fab­ric: ar­rest­ing and ven­er­a­ble, un­usual and re­as­sur­ingly fa­mil­iar.

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