Liberty & Co, also known as Liberty’s is a distinctive department store in London’s West End. With an austere mock Tudor facade, and deep royal purple and Gold branding, Liberty’s is entrenched within British retail history, being one of the few most successful British stores. Like most department stores, Liberty’s stocks an array of niche, independent and up and coming designers and luxury goods. What’s more, they have cemented themselves within fashion history as they produce their own signature printed fabric which over the years has collaborated with major artists, designers and brands.
Stree Image of Liberty & Co, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Liberty’s opened in 1875 and from an early age it established itself as one of the most fashionable places to shop in London, importing goods from across the world for the eager British public. The brainchild of Arthur Lasenby Liberty, Liberty & Co was originally created to sell ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from Japan. Yet, it wasn’t long before Liberty’s expanded, buying multiple other shopping spaces in the street and establishing its world-famous ‘Eastern Bazaar’ on the lower ground floor. In 1884, the costume department was added, where they created in-house apparel to rival the fashion capital Paris. Liberty & Co also became famous for their wide selection of Indian silks, considered to be the best in Britain. Within a few years, Liberty’s epitomised Victorian eccentricity and its hunger for curiosity and power.
Yet, Liberty & Co was more than just a luxury and prolific shop, it was also a major hub for both the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. Liberty & Co vastly contributed to the patronage of up and coming jewellery artists, furniture makers and designers, which included those who were involved within these movements.
What’s more, with all of these artists within its walls, it soon became a nucleus of thought and discussion. We can just imagine the dissemination of artistic ideas and social ideologies that characterised the Arts and Crafts movement amongst the Liberty shop floor. Plus it is believed that Liberty was frequented by famous pre-Raphaelite artists and the most sartorial in society.
But, where did Liberty’s relationship with the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau come in? This blog post will uncover just how important Liberty & Co was to these artistic movements, including taking a closer look at their most important jewellery designers and the distinctive Arts and Crafts pieces created for and sold at Liberty’s
In fact, this blog post was inspired by a recent Liberty & Co acquisition, this rare Turquoise and Gold bracelet has a unique Liberty & Co patent - the perfect collector’s item.
Liberty & Co 10ct Gold Turquoise Bracelet, Source - Lillicoco
What was the Arts and Craft Movement?
First and foremost, you need to know more about the Arts and Crafts movement. Our Lillicoco University Article on the Victorian era briefly explores the Arts and Crafts movement, but we feel that we should explore it in greater detail today.
William Morris, The Orchard, c.1890, Source - Barcelona Metropolitan
There were plenty of overlapping artistic styles and movements that occured in the Victorian period. A time of momentous change, the Victorian period created illustrious jewellery that were both inspired by the past like Etruscan revival, Gothic revival and Celtic revival, but also the future. Each year, as mass industrialisation became the norm in numerous major British cities, more and more mass produced jewellery, furniture and fashion designs were created and sold.
The Arts and Crafts movement flourished between 1880 to 1920. Yet its origins started to emerge in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. The Great Exhibition was a huge financial and cultural success and is today a key signifier of the Victorian golden age. However, some of the cheaply rendered goods and the lack of space where artists could exhibit their work (without paying extortionate prices) were criticised. What’s more, during this time Victorian England rapid industrialisation started to gain traction which led to many people idealising its pastoral past and cottage industries.
Illustration of the Great Exhibition from Dickenson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition 1851, c.1854, Source - The British Library
Unlike other movements, the Arts and Crafts movement did not originate from one singular hub, it manifested in a variety of different guilds and places. Cities like London, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham allowed the movement to flourish, as free thinkers and artisans could mix freely. On the other hand, many artisans and designers moved out to the country to be away from industrialisation, which in turn led to the boom of the economy in rural areas. The Arts and Crafts movement was notable in that it not only allowed the progression of established artists, but also it didn't rely on traditional formal training, which led to many more young apprentices from lower class backgrounds and women making artwork.
Although it cant be traced back to one place, there were a few hugely influential figures that disseminated ideas and generated a following. Notably, this included art critic and philosopher John Ruskin who wrote the Stones of Venice in 1853. Essentially he believed that the decorative arts affected the men who produced them, and consequently the introduction of machinery dehumanised the worker. This was further substantiated by William Morris who we will explore later.
Photograph of John Ruskin, c.1879, Source -Wikimedia Commons
The Arts and Crafts movement soon became more than just a design theory, it epitomised social and economic reform. It was grounded on the fundamental belief that if the quality of design improved, then the character of the individual creating the piece would improve and as a larger consequence, society would improve as a whole. Not only were cheap, mass-produced designs quickly becoming the norm, but it shed a light onto the terrible working conditions of factories and the degradation of the natural landscape.
However, every movement had its limits and issues. For the Arts and Crafts movement, there were great juxtapositions in that the designs themselves were expensive to create and sell which didn’t appeal to the lower classes.
With this in mind, the Arts and Crafts movement had a distinct style. The design of these handcrafted pieces largely took inspiration from medieval and celtic designs and crafts, as these were believed to be inherently purer and closer to nature.
Printed Season Ticket to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, Source - Victoria and Albert Museum
Arts and Crafts jewellery rejected the fussy, glamorous and show-off style that dominated Victorian jewellery. Yet the pieces were still beautiful and incredibly popular. As the Arts and Crafts movement emerged during both the Art Nouveau and Victorian Aesthetic movement, there were significant overlaps in design. Although the designs combined the curvaceous ethereal designs of the Art Nouveau movement and the heavy nature-inspired reliefs of the Aesthetic movement, Arts and Crafts pieces had a rebellious edge and grit that stood them apart from other jewellery.
Arts and Crafts Era Gold Necklace, Henry Wilson, c.1905, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
So, where did Liberty & Co and the Arts and Craft movement meet? As mentioned earlier, there was increasing demand for spaces where artists could showcase their work, well Liberty’s was one of these, firmly establishing it as a key place for the development of the movement.
A Brief Glance
Well, during the 1890's, Liberty’s established strong relationships with independent artisans who were part of the Arts and Crafts movement. One of these was Archibald Knox who eventually became Liberty’s primary designer.
Archibald Knox was both instrumental in the growth of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau in Britain and at Liberty. In fact, Knox sought out other talented designers to be taken under Liberty’s wings. Soon the name “Liberty” itself became so synonymous with these movements that in Italy, Art Nouveau was actually known as “Stile Liberty”.
In 1899 Liberty exhibited their first ever collection of Silverware and jewellery, designed by Knox himself. This was known as the Cymric collection and it was incredibly popular amongst Liberty’s shoppers. So much so that a later Tudric collection was commissioned. These collections comprised of richly decorated enamelled pieces, stylised flora and fauna patterns, celtic knots and Art Nouveau whiplash lines.
Liberty & Co Jewellery Designers
As Liberty & Co was a social and artistic centre, there were numerous Liberty & Co designers, artisans and goldsmiths.
What’s more, many of these designers were adept in a variety of professions. So, they wouldn’t just be making high quality jewellery, they would craft silverware, furniture, and art too.
As mentioned previously Archibald Knox was a huge influence in the development of the Arts and Crafts movement in association with Liberty’s. Not only was he their lead designer and thinker in the Liberty Cymric and Tudric creations, but he was widely known within the artistic and literary circles of the time.
Photograph of Archibald Knox, c.1910, Source - Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Archibald Knox had many talents, helping to design both ornamental and utilitarian objects with ease. From Silver and Pewter tea sets to watercolour paintings, graphic design and even bank cheques, Knox’s talents were limitless.
Mary Watts was another one of Liberty & Co’s chief designers. The second wife of the famous Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, Mary Watts was more than just a jewellery designer, she herself was an established architect, artist and social reformer - president of the Godalming and District National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society.
Portrait of Mary Watts, c.1887, Source - Wikimedia Commons.
Watt’s style was instrumental to Liberty & Co’s creations as her design aesthetic was heavily Celtic and Art Nouveau. Watt’s was a firm believer in the Arts and Crafts movement ideologies of social and artistic reform and progression, for instance, she believed that anyone, no matter of background or profession could produce things of beauty.
Not only was Watts a contributing designer to Liberty & Co’s jewellery collection, but she also was asked to design a range of carpets too. Significantly, this collaboration meant that a workshop was opened in Donegal, Ireland which employed local women who came from impoverished backgrounds to help them make a livelihood.
Jessie M King
Jessie M King was another notable contributor to and designer associated with Liberty & Co. Best known for her beautifully illustrated children’s books, Jessie M King also designed bookplates, jewellery, fabric and pottery.
Liberty & Co Cymric Silver Enamelled Clasp, Jessie Marion King, c.1903-1904, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Largely inspired by the whimsical and ethereal nature of Art Nouveau designs, King brought a magical touch to Liberty & Co’s jewellery creations, most specifically the Cymric line.
We probably are cheating here as WIlliam Morris wasn’t a jewellery designer, but as mentioned previously, William Morris was instrumental in the creation and spread of the Arts and Crafts movement. So, it won’t come as no surprise that he did collaborate and show his designs at Liberty. Further substantiating that Liberty & Co was an essential part of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
Photograph of William Morris aged 53, c.1887, Source - Wikimedia Commons
However, the meeting of William Morris and Arthur Liberty wasn’t just by chance. In the later 19th century, as Liberty & Co was gaining popularity as a reputable imported silk and fabric, Arthur Liberty found that a number of the fabrics he was importing had inconsistencies with dyes and consequently were inclined to fade. To remedy this, Arthur Liberty contacted Thomas Wardle, silk printer and dyer from Staffordshire. Wardle actually printed silks for Morris, and he had worked with Morris experimenting on vegetable dyes.
Strawberry Thief Furnishing Fabric, William Morris, c.1883, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
William Morris himself had established a shop called Morris & Co, which was exceptionally popular amongst the British upper and middle classes. Morris’s signature style was heavily influenced by medieval textiles, which design historians believe originated in his early apprenticeship with G.E Street, a specialist in ecclesiastical embroidery. Morris was commissioned by Arthur Liberty numerous times to create their outstanding and legendary fabric designs.
Tudor and Cymric Jewellery Collection
Although mentioned numerous times throughout this blog post, what was the Tudric and Cymric jewellery collection produced in Liberty’s?
The perfect fusion of both Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau sensibilities, the Tudric and Cymric jewellery collections are phonetically a play on the past. In fact, Cymric itself is the official name for the Welsh language, and it's hard to not see the parallels between “Tudor” and “Tudric”, perhaps a homage to Liberty’s signature mock Tudor building structure!
Liberty & Co Cymric Enamelled Gold Pendant, Archibald Knox, c.1900, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Cymric collection debuted in 1899, largely crafted from Sterling Silver and featuring vibrant peacock-hued enamel. What was significant about this jewellery collection was that it was mass produced, meaning that many people could purchase these pieces. Ironically, the fact that it was mass produced, yet inherently Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau in style (but not substance) completely conflicts with the Arts and Crafts movements ideologies. However, after all, Liberty’s was a business, and as previously mentioned one of the main struggles that occurred during the Arts and Crafts movement was that although it’s ideologies favoured the working classes, it was difficult to make handcrafted high-quality goods affordable to all.
Advertisement for Liberty & Co's Cymric Jewellery Collection, Source - Lang Antiques
The Tudric collection was the second Silverware collection produced by Liberty. This was largely domestic goods but did include some jewellery pieces. This was far more affordable than the Cymric collection because it was crafted from Pewter. Yet, it unmistakably had the similar motifs that made the Cymric collection so popular.
Liberty & Co Pewter Enamel Tudric Clock, Archibald Knox, Source - National Gallery of Victoria
From these collections, Liberty of London created its own esoteric and idiosyncratic style. In fact, even after the Arts and Crafts movement ended (and Modernism started), Liberty’s continued to create stunning jewellery collections using these motifs. For instance, even today they create Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts revival jewellery inspired by their archival pieces.
We hope you have enjoyed reading and learning more about this fascinating period in history!
Next week, our blog post is going to be completely different, taking inspiration from one of televisions most popular sitcoms - can you guess what it will be? Comment below for your ideas!
Love, Lillicoco xo