Don’t think I haven’t noticed that people are talking about Christmas. In our local, The Olde Ruptured Duck, decorations started to appear weeks ago and nearby houses are lit up like, well, Christmas trees. I’ve seen things on TV too, since about October: y’know, shops and what-not, each flogging their own version of seasonal perfection – a sofa that is guaranteed to arrive before the Big Day, cute little fairies that add sparkle to – gosh, almost anything, I should imagine – more marmalade for Paddington, the cheapest and most pleasant ways to become obese, achieve total oblivion – and so on. The message is that, whatever else you may have thought, Christmas is all about buying stuff.
I love Christmas; I really do. And, like any other stereotypical male, I am absolutely thrilled at the very prospect of Christmas shopping. It’s not just the pleasure of shopping for its own sake, wonderful though that is; it’s the added anticipation of simultaneously sharing that sublime experience, from car park to cash register, with thousands of other people, each and every one of them brimming over with peace and goodwill to all, which transports me to unimaginable heights of ecstasy… So a few years ago, we went to Liberty’s of London – or Liberty London as they seem to prefer now.
Liberty London is one of those iconic, long-established, British shop brands, like Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Grace Bros, which have so far managed to remain unique. Given the way that Britain’s high streets and retail habits have changed, particularly in recent decades, it is a singular achievement for these places to have survived at all. Liberty London is particularly renowned for its fabrics and floral prints, but also enjoys a reputation for the slightly exotic and individual. This used to be reflected in their website, which once claimed it was, “where rich heritage combines with the cutting edge and avant garde.” Rather beguilingly, it went on to purr, “We welcome you into our eccentric, indulgent and utterly charming world and invite you to get truly lost in Liberty.” I know the website said these things, not because I look at it regularly for my floral print fix, but because I wrote about our Christmas visit shortly afterwards and used the website to get some quotes at the time. Checking again for this article, I could no longer find those somewhat mellifluous phrases and discovered, with a degree of distress I can’t begin to describe, that Liberty London’s website now looks pretty much like any other retailer’s website. Could this be a sign of the proverbial thin end of the wedge? Though, to be fair, it does still quote Oscar Wilde claiming that, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.” Phew!
Liberty’s founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was the eldest son of Arthur Liberty, draper and lace manufacturer of Nottingham and Chesham, and Rebecca Lasenby. Our Arthur was educated in Nottingham (a city famous for its lace), left school at sixteen, worked in a lace warehouse and then found himself working for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Shawl & Cloak Emporium in London’s Regent Street. He was put in charge of their oriental business and decided to break out on his own. Borrowing £2,000 from his future father-in-law, and with a staff of 3, in 1875 he leased half a shop at 218a Regent Street, calling it the ‘East India House’. Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and leased the other half of the shop. He was an instinctive niche retailer; growth was rapid and Liberty’s business became associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. He was knighted in 1913 and died, a wealthy man, at his home, Lee Manor, Buckinghamshire.
Sadly, Liberty did not live to see his fabulous new premises open in 1924 on Great Marlborough Street, at the junction with Regent Street, where it remains today. Built in mock-Tudor style, the Liberty London building sticks out from the surrounding buildings like a pink hearse at an undertaker’s convention. The timbers used in its construction came from two Royal Navy ships, HMS Impregnable, launched as HMS Howe in 1860 and the Navy’s last wooden-wall ship, and HMS Hindustan, a battleship dating back to 1841. Apparently, Liberty’s shop front along Great Marlborough Street is the same length as HMS Hindustan was – 185’. Don’t ask me why.
Inside, Liberty is as unlike every other shop in London as it is on the outside. It seems mean-spirited to call it an up-market department store, though that’s sort of what it is, offering homeware, clothing, accessories, beauty products and, of course, haberdashery and fabrics. It’s all on 5 floors, which creak alarmingly underfoot and, at the best of times, it seems to me like a cross between a conventional shop and a bazaar, contained within an intimate wooden labyrinth. It is invariably busy, but as soon as we’d made our way in for the Christmas visit, it seemed to me that personal safety, let alone personal space, was at risk; the place was heaving. I was tempted to enter into the spirit of the season and suggest there was obviously no room, or that a wise man would find someplace else to go; however, there was a kind of majestic inevitability about carrying on – though staying calm was another matter. Liberty’s fragrant staff floated across the floors, smiling encouragingly; everyone else had the look of piranhas at snack time. The cacophony of noise blended predominantly English Home County with virtually any other accent you care to think of; but though many of the voices’ owners could have successfully auditioned for the First XV, there appeared to be surprisingly few deliberate injuries. Head Office and others of the gentler sex seemed to be perfectly at ease with all of this, picking up things and fingering them absent-mindedly, before moving on in a kind of robotic tackle-proof trance; on the other hand, being only 6 foot tall and a mere 14 stone in weight, I felt slightly intimidated and more than a little confused. What I really needed was a Kevlar suit and a ball of string so that I could find my way back outside.
Upstairs in the Christmas shop, there seemed to be an unofficial one-way system in operation. To attempt a U-turn was hazardous, if not impossible – so if you missed something, you really needed to go round again. In reality, you had to go round at least twice; the first time when you realised you couldn’t stop without causing a multiple pile-up, and the second to get into the right lane in order to peel off to see display that caught your eye. Those that did not manage to work this out were still there at closing-time, circling helplessly, and had to be gently escorted from the premises, gibbering incoherently.
It must be enormous fun, putting together a Christmas shop – and I think most stores make a pretty good fist of it, actually. Liberty London certainly does – the place glittered. I gathered from reading some background to a Channel 4 documentary series, ‘Liberty of London’ – which, inexplicably, I kept missing (I think it clashed with basket weaving in Cantonese) – that Liberty London starts planning for the festive season in January and it receives more than a ¼ million visitors from all over the world. Apparently, it stocks 100,000 baubles, 3,000 fairies and 1,000 novelty dogs. Should you ever be asked, now you know.
We were barely able to resist the urge to buy an imitation gold framed miniature portrait of Her Majesty the Queen to hang on the Christmas tree at £15.95, or a very practical almost man-sized stuffed toy polar bear for £995 (probably too big for the loft, to be fair). Instead, we settled for a bauble that reminded me of a Fabergé egg. On the way down, we had to inspect the world-famous fabrics and womenswear department (and who can blame them?) There, I spotted a dress mannequin covered with a bright, floral, design; the absurd price-tag was £1,300 – far too much for a mannequin, I thought. And then, I don’t know how, we found ourselves outside in the relative sanity of Regent Street on a late Saturday afternoon in December.
Alas, our bauble perished last Christmas, victim to a particularly boisterous game of tiddlywinks.
For much, much, more information, visit Liberty London via their website. It will tell you three other interesting facts about the business:
- The weathervane on the Liberty building is an exact model of the Mayflower, which took 102 English pilgrims to New England, USA in 1620;
- Dotted around the store are the shields of Shakespeare, Henry VIII’s six wives and many more;
- The wise words underneath the clock at the Kingly Street entrance read “No minute gone comes ever back again, take heed and see ye nothing do in vain”.
No explanation is offered for any of the above; expecting there to be logical reasons for things probably explains why I’m not an architect. By the way, I wonder what happened to Farmer & Rogers? I don’t suppose there’s much demand for cloaks these days, even great ones.