8 Secrets Of Liberty

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 16 months ago
8 Secrets Of Liberty
Liberty exterior, 2013. Photo: Paul

The Carnaby store, also known as Liberty's, Liberty of London and Liberty & Co is the work of Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who took over half of a Regent Street shop in 1875. Some 18 months later, the business was doing so well that he acquired the other half.

Over the next decades, more departments were added to the store, and in 1924 the Great Marlborough Street shop was built to allow renovations to take place in the other premises, which were sold off in 2009.

The building

Beautiful building isn't it? Despite looking like it hails from Tudor times, the current Great Marlborough Street building was built in 1924, seven years after Arthur Lasenby Liberty died, and is now Grade II* listed.

The timbers come from two ships, the HMS Impregnable (formerly known as HMS Howe and once the largest ship in the world) and the HMS Hindustan. The Great Marlborough Street frontage of the store is the same length as HMS Hindustan.

The interior was designed to have a homely feel, with small rooms surrounding three central light wells. Many of the individual rooms had fireplaces, some of which are still intact.

War memorial

Look out for the war memorial on the staircase. Photo: Londonist

Ever walked up the wooden staircase at one end of the building? On the walls are wooden carved war memorials, dedicated to Liberty staff who lost their lives in wars.

The bridge

Ever wondered why a pedestrian bridge over Kingly Street links Liberty to a building on Regent Street which is not part of Liberty? These were the original buildings where Liberty started his retail empire. Today, Cos, Desigual and Gap occupy the building.

On the bridge is the St George Clock, which was restored in 2010. At each quarter of the hour George chases the dragon around the clock, and on the hour he slays the dragon. (The Fortnum & Mason clock is pretty impressive too.)

The weathervane

The Liberty weathervane. Photo: Terry Moran

Liberty's nautical theme continues in the weathervane, a gold coloured ship which sits above the entrance on Great Marlborough Street. The weathervane is a replica of The Mayflower, which transported Pilgrims to the New World in 1620.  

The PR stunt that backfired

Liberty has always specialised in Oriental goods — as far back as the 1880s, Indian silks were imported to the store, and the rug department is well-known today.

In 1885, Arthur Lasenby Liberty brought a village of 42 Indians to London and staged a 'living village' of Indian artisan producers in Battersea Park, with the aim of selling more of these products. However, the public were concerned about the way the villagers were being put on display, and the stunt backfired. But the Indian visitors did get a trip to Mansion House while they were here:

Reynolds's Newspaper - Sunday 1 November 1885 Image © The British Library Board

Other cities

London's not the only city to have had a Liberty. In the mid 1950s, the store opened a branch in Manchester, followed by Bath, Brighton, Chester, York and Norwich, peaking at 20 regional stores around the UK. The closure of these regional branches was announced in 1996.

The Allurement of Liberty's

So was titled an article in the London News of 7 January 1907, which went on to talk of the store's post-Christmas sales thus:

"A dazzling dream of colour in all its infinite variety that in itself makes one of the most magnificent etalages in London, a vision that only the poetic faculty of the artist could have devised — that is what we have learned to associated with a sale at Liberty's... Liberty are once more furnishing us with that feast of exquisite hues for which their house is so widely famed."

It certainly sounds a lot more civilised than modern day post-Christmas sales.

Oscar Wilde was a fan

The writer was a regular customer of Liberty, and a friend of the store's founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty. Wilde once said: "Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper." Praise indeed.

Know any other secrets of Liberty? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @Londonist.

See also:

Last Updated 11 October 2016

Greg Tingey

Lost it completely, when they closed the Oriental Prints section.
Pity.
Lovely building

Evelyn Walsh

gorgeous place, reminds us that public spaces-- yes, even shops-- can be so meaningful and moving. Reminds me of the stunning (yet also surprisingly cozy) buildings of Wellesley College. Wellesley was built later, I believe, but they feel very similar. Wonderful post. Would love even more pictures.

Giselle

Aren't there small wooden additions to staircase banisters (towards the Regents St side of the building) in the shape of a frog and another one of a turtle? I would love to know more about them and the Internet isn't being particularly informative.

Achilleas Labrou

I tried to took some photo inside but they didn't allowed me. In general not a good department store for tourists like Harrods and Selfridges.