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Liberty & Co. (1875-2020)

Liberty & Co.

Regent Street, London; furniture makers and retailers (1875-2020)

Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born 13 August 1843 in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, the son of a draper in the town. From 1862 he worked for Farmer and Robert’s Great Shawl Emporium, 171-5 Regent Street, rising to the position of head of the shop. In 1875, aged 30, he took a lease on part of a shop at 218a Regent Street. To launch the new ‘Oriental warehouse’ Liberty had raised money through his fiancée Emma Louise Blackmore; her father, a tailor in Book Street, and another tailor, Henry Hill in Bond Street, together provided £1500 and they acted as guarantors for a further £1000. The shop opened on 15 May 1875 and in 1876 Liberty acquired the other half of 218 to expand his business, named Arthur Lasenby Liberty Ltd, becoming Liberty & Co. within a few years. In 1878 he acquired 42 & 43 Kingly Street. The designer E. W. Godwin and the artist Rex Whistler collaborated with Liberty in producing a stand for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, which displayed furniture designed by Godwin and made by William Watt, with fabrics and china from Liberty. Whistler was invited by the furniture maker William Watt, at Godwin’s suggestion, to undertake the decoration of the stand. In 1879 Liberty acquired further premises at 7 Argyll Street and Regent Street and in 1882, 142 & 144 Regent Street were added to the property portfolio.  At this time the ‘studio’ and upholstery workshops were established at East India House (the original premises of 218 Regent Street). The furniture and furnishing store was moved to Chesham House, 142-144 Regent Street, in 1883 with a Furnishing and Decoration Studio run by the designer Leonard Wyburd. The studio provided a place where Eastern arts and designs could be studied and, as described in a Yuletide Gifts catalogue, ‘The studio proved of the greatest use in maturing and producing designs...’.  In 1887 E. P. Roberts joined the team at the Furniture and Decoration Studio and in the same year Liberty Cabinet Works opened, probably at Beak Street, owned by Mr James Thallon, a Scot ‘who by an arrangement carried out works in our name’.  It was possible that Liberty & Co. bought Thallon’s workshop. The cabinet workshops later moved to Little Marlborough Street, where George Wolfe was foreman. By 1889 the Liberty & Co. furniture and cabinet factory was established in Newman Street and in 1892 it moved to Newman Yard, Newman Street. In 1898 the workshop moved to Dufours Place, Soho; Mr Thallon retired and was succeeded as manager by his son. The 1913 Phone Book recorded Liberty & Co. cabinet and joinery works at Pauntley Street, Archway Road, Highgate, where they remained until about 1940. Arthur Lasenby Liberty died in 1917 but the company he founded is still trading in 2020.

Having originally only stocked imported furniture, in 1883 Liberty employed the 18 year old Leonard Wyburd as principal designer for Liberty & Co. Wyburd’s furniture designs were first published in its Art Furniture catalogue of 1884 and included items in the ‘Oriental’ style such as the Kharan angle chair and the Kharan Liberty chair with rush seat, available in stained wood, oak, walnut or mahogany. Also illustrated was the ‘Thebes’ stool, which would become forever associated with the Liberty name (illus. Bennett (2012), pp. 25-26). The Thebes stool had originally been part of the Art Furnishers’ Alliance portfolio but after its failure in 1883 Liberty registered it with the Patent Office (no. 16673, 1884) along with the three legged version of the same (no. 16674). By 1884 a new range of ‘cottage’ or vernacular-style furniture was launched with the Argyll, Dudley and Kenilworth chairs being available in the same wood options as the Kharan range. The Handbook of Sketches c.1895-1900 illustrated plans and furnishings for a ‘Summer Cottage’, as well as Moorish or Saracenic rooms. The cottage style included a Shakespeare’ chair, an example of which made in mahogany, with inlaid design, heart shape carved in the back and ivorine label (illus. Bennettt (2012) p.130). The settee of the Argyll range, supplied in beech stained black, was similar to a range by Morris & Co. but at £3 18s 6d was twice the cost of the Morris example. The popular Arundel set, ‘Solid Oak Furniture of Old English Character’ (illus. Bennett (2012), p. 102) continued to appear in later catalogues and was copied by other designers, like T. Moyr Smith. The Liberty Handbook(s) of Sketches series, 1889-1900, illustrated Wyburd’s furniture designs both as individual objects, part of ranges and in part settings.  In the 1880s and 1890s Ursin Fortier of 65 Charlotte Street made bamboo furniture for the store and also produced bamboo in conjunction with Moorish accessories such as plant pots &c. Liberty’s became his sole client. Variances of standard designs were also available: Ayner Vallance recalled in 1892 that he had chair ‘... which was MADE FOR ME BY Messrs Liberty & Co., the conditions being stipulated that it was to have no curls about it nor any buttons...’.  George Walton’s chair design for Miss Cranston’s Glasgow tearooms was made or copied by Liberty’s. Mottoes shown on furniture by Wyburd for Liberty were often copied; the best known mottoes used by Shapland and Petter, such as ‘Welcome ever Smiles, Reading maketh a Full Man’ and ‘Port after Storm’, were originally coined by Wyburd. Other Wyburd mottoes appeared in print at the same time, or earlier, as those of the architects C. F. A. Voysey and H. M. Baillie Scott. Plant motifs were also used by both Wyburd for Liberty and Shapland and Petter, whilst the medieval symbols of the lion and griffin continued in Liberty’s designs for decades.  From the time of Wyburd’s appointment there was a gradual inclusion in the Liberty stock of new pieces of furniture. Within 10 years, no doubt with reference to Morris & Co. and to the published sources of E. W. Godwin, Bruce Talbert and Charles Eastlake, interpretations of Tudor, Jacobean and Elizabethan period furniture developed into a rugged vernacular style with armoured metalwork, heavy oak and medieval character often with carved friezes and painted decoration. 

In the 1890 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Liberty’s exhibited a chair covered in ‘dull read leather’ designed by a Wyburd and executed by E. Robinson. A special commission about 1890 was the oak Lochleven Buffet, now at the Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna. The leading periodicals like The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher and the Art Journal praised Liberty’s simple ‘art furniture’ in the 1890s, mentioning Flemish hinges and fittings of hammered iron which harmonized well with the tones of oak and other woods. In the 1901 Yuletide Gifts catalogue the distinctly modern Kentigern lounge chair was introduced, as well as the Bryda plant stand with sledge base and pierced hearts – a design which also appeared in the Norman and Stacy catalogue of a similar date and in the William Birch archives. In 1903 Liberty’s took the decision to produce their own carpets, either to the designs of Wyburd or by commissioned designers including C. F. A. Voysey and made by the Donegal carpet workshops. Amongst its several manuals of home decoration, The British Home of Today featured two room settings in 1904 and in each case Liberty & Co. was named as the firm which carried out the work, with Leonard Wyburd was listed as the designer, working with E. P. Roberts and A. Denington. Roberts was a Liberty employee who started in the furniture department as assistant to Wyburd in 1887 and took over as head of the Furniture and Decoration Studio when Wyburd left about 1903-5. Following the Furniture for Town Flats and Country Houses catalogue in 1902 came the Simple and Durable Furniture: Examples of Furniture for Town Houses, Flats and Weekend Cottages in 1906. This catalogue featured mostly cottage-style pieces made in oak with a small amount in polished mahogany, heart piercing and small leaded glass cupboards. The Studio Yearbook of 1906 featured several Liberty Jacobean and Elizabethan styles as well as more modern designs, often shown in room settings. The 1907 Studio Yearbook illustrated two oak chairs with parallel turned columns and were described as ‘Two chairs by Messrs Liberty & Co... at first seem to suggest Chippendale design but on closer examination the absence of cabriole form in the legs constitutes a departure from the... prototype and a return to a rather simple standard of design’. The Christmas catalogues from 1900-1915 continued to show the popularity of the small range of Oriental goods, particularly inlaid tables and the Thebes stool. The regular furniture catalogues also included log and coal boxes, mirrors, artistic stove screens and a catalogue entitled Solid Oak Panelling (1911) showed that the Arts and Crafts style oak doors and panelling were still available. No new pieces seemed to have been introduced in the 1912 catalogue, nor in the revamped format of the Small Pieces of Furniture catalogue of 1915. A full list of the Liberty furniture designs and ranges from 1883 to 1914 is in Bennett (2012) p. 327. Catalogues of Liberty & Co. furniture and furnishings for 1881-1904 are in the National Art Library, V&A, and Westminster City Archives.

Early authentic Liberty objects tended to have a label of rectangular red or white paper with gothic script.  A diamond label in orange card fixed with pins and with a registered design number is also known as is the stamped mark ‘Liberty & Co.’, impressed into the underside of wooden items. However, the most common form of labelling was a small lozenge-shaped plaque of ivorine or enamelled brass.  Occasionally numbers were stamped into the wood underneath or on the reverse of pieces. Examples of Liberty & Co. furniture stamps and labels and stamped locks are illus. Bennett (2012), pp. 299 & 301-3.

William Birch, High Wycombe furniture maker, was known to have made up designs for Liberty. These were presumably commissioned by Leonard Wyburd and included the Ethelbert and Athelstan chairs of 1899 & 1901 respectively. The contractual arrangements between Birch and Liberty’s remains unknown but the Ethelbert chair, no. 871, was published by Birch in 1901 and cost 40s polished. The same design had been advertised in Liberty’s Yuletide Catalogue of 1899 at £3 7s 6d. From the Liberty archive at Westminster and a collection of notes and sketches by Barbara Morris, several chairs made by William Birch can be identified. E. G. Punnett designed some pieces supplied to Liberty, and William Birch said in 1901 that ‘We made a number of his models in wax finish eg Walnut for Liberty’. The Punnett designs which were sold to Liberty appeared to date from 1901 to 1904 and included two small tables illus. Bennett (2012), p. 317. An example of a Thebes stool made by either William Birch or B. North & Sons, also of High Wycombe, is at the V&A. https://www.vandaimages.com/preview.asp?image=2006AU6217&itemw=4&itemf=0001&itemstep=1&itemx=1

Liberty designs for bedroom furniture, cabinets, desks, various types of chair and couch, hall stands, mirrors, screens, hanging shelves, are illus. Joy (1977).

Sources:  Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Joy, Pictorial Dictionary of British 19th Century Furniture Design (1977); Walkling, Antique Bamboo Furniture (1979); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design from Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Bland, Take a Seat.  The Story of Parker Knoll 1834-1994 (1995); Bennett, Liberty’s Furniture 1875-1915. The Birth of Modern Interior Design (2012).