Beyond the Pale


Behind the Scenes at Liberty: A Secret Tour

Today was an extra exciting jaunt to Liberty, as myself and a dear friend were treated to a whistle-stop tour of the lesser- spotted aspects of Liberty’s history.

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Meeting Anna, the in-house archivist for Liberty at the appointed hour in Customer Services, we were whisked downstairs and across the narrow street to the original frontage of the building (now owned by clothing brand COS), where Anna asked us to walk a little further on and raise our heads to the skies…

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Above, barely seen, are huge Oriental style columns and carvings, which marked Liberty’s original raison d’être as an Oriental Emporium; bringing luxury exotic goods to the (albeit well-heeled) masses.

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When Liberty opened its doors in 1875, built on a loan of £2,000 from Arthur Liberty’s future Father-in-law, and with just 3 staff, it was excellent timing. Liberty offered its clientele objets d’art, luxurious rugs and fabrics at the height of fashion with the public clamouring for desirable Eastern exoticism mixed with the comforting backbone of British tradition, and a sort of passionate longing for a romanticised Heritage which described the ideals of the Pre-Rapahelite movement.

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As we re-trace our steps and walk back to the entrance, Anna tells us to look up again at the strange little bridge between the original building and the newer part that Liberty now inhabits. This was specifically built to join the two sides together, but with the written stipulation that “…should one of the buildings be sold and used by another company, the bridge should immediately be pulled down. Which means, of course, that it shouldn’t still be standing,” Anna laughed, “though as it’s been listed, I think it’s pretty safe now.”

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The Tudor facade of the building we now think of as Liberty was actually built while the original building underwent refurbishments, so they could continue trading; and was chosen to stand for all that the ultra fashionable householder could desire – the entire building was meant to be a kind of Show Home Par Excellence. And indeed, for a price, you could walk in and have the exact carvings and “draped linen” effect wooden panels in your own home – built and furnished entirely by Liberty. Very nice, too. Put me down for one of everything, please!

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Climbing into one of the quirky wooden lifts, Anna remarks that people who work on Liberty occasionally like to gently poke fun at a certain kind of wide-eyed tourist, by loudly acclaiming the wonders of their “original Tudor lifts.” The thought of this amused me greatly, though as we guffawed, I couldn’t help noticing the slightly crestfallen face of the lady standing beside us, and hoped we hadn’t crushed her marvelling at the advanced technology of those Tudor types. Bless.

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The dark wooden beams and chunky Heraldic carvings in the 1920′s Tudor style building that so epitomises the Liberty aesthetic were actually taken from two massive ships, the HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. The frontage of the building on Great Marlborough Street was supposedly constructed to be the same length and width as the Hindustan, though to Anna’s knowledge this has never been absolutely verified. It’s a pleasing thought, so let’s just imagine it’s true and leave it at that.

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There is definitely the salty tang of the sea about Liberty’s interior. Perhaps it’s all the creaking timbers and the way it’s laid out, but one can certainly imagine you are all aboard the Good Ship Liberty, a proud galleon of British idealism, all oak leaves and marigolds, in full sail, carrying exotic goods gathered from each corner of the Empire.

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Trotting through the store at a cracking pace, startling crowds and scattering tourists as we went, Anna got us to notice the way the wood is treated differently in certain areas – variously varnished, gilded, painted, and (horrifically, in my opinion) bleached with vagaries of fashion and reflecting the changes of what is seen as ‘good taste’ in different eras. “In the sixties they wanted everything modern and new, none of this old stuff, so the thought was that the woods was far too dark. So they either ripped bits of it out or had a go at bleaching it.”

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Some of the wood was re-stained, some left as it was, and this adds to that patchwork Make Do and Mend, higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. And this is the way it has always been, the building is constantly changing shape with use, and so it should. This is a living, breathing business, not a museum piece trapped in aspic.

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Luckily they didn’t destroy too much if the original carvings, but a great deal of the original plaster work was chiseled out. In a few places you can still see the moulded oak leaves and ornate ceilings that would have been everywhere, but most walls are plain these days.

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The tea rooms originally used to be in the basement, the clue to this being the tiled walls, though this now fits very well with the menswear section and traditional style barbershop that now lives here. In what is now used as the hat department, along one wall, is a huge and incredibly ornate safe with a massive lock. “This used to be the jewellery department, and they kept the most valuable pieces locked away.”

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Luxury leathers, now full of designer bags, once housed Liberty’s Goods In delivery area. “The street that runs alongside it was once a quiet little alleyway, so perfect for having their deliveries brought into; but when the street became more wealthy and successful, the store had to increase its frontage and entrance ways to entice the shoppers in, so the area became prime floor space instead.”

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Liberty has changed to meet the world around it, too, then, just as it has changed internally over the years. As we cautiously peered over the railings on the top floor, Anna bade us look right down to the ground below. It’s a rather dizzying sensation, I can tell you. Next, she showed us another section in which a floor had been inserted in the 1960′s, again to maximise floor space, which is understandable but rather regrettable, like much of the Sixties architectural choices, if you ask me. She said, sounding like Prince Charles. ;-p

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When I’m usually in Liberty, my eyes are darting from one one thing to the next, there is so much to see you quite literally don’t know where to look next. It’s quite wonderfully exhausting, just trying to take it all in; every surface laden with goodies.

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My favourite throughout the whole tour was the way Anna would suddenly pause and point out the things you normally miss amidst the sumptuous offerings. “Look, there’s one!” she exclaims, and we creep closer to the window she’s pointing at, peering at the tiny fragment of stained glass the window pane had been patched with.

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“There are simply loads of these scattered through the whole of Liberty’s,” Anna explained. They would buy up antiques and old windows in auctions and patch the glass whenever a bit got broken or damaged.

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Larger clues to the original look of the Liberty Ideal Home are found in the many fireplaces around the building, dating from various periods in Liberty’s history.

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Anna explained this informal way of displaying goods for sale was quite revolutionary. Instead of just relying on special cabinets and shop fittings, Liberty revelled in the backdrop of the building itself to best display their wares: rugs draped over wooden railings, fabrics arrayed over antique tables, baskets arranged in fireplaces – just as they are today.

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Fabrics must be what Liberty is most famous for selling, but in fact the rug department is the only original link to their true beginnings as an Oriental Emporium. The rugs are still draped nonchalantly over the wooden railings, as though awaiting the attentions of the maid and her brush.

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I love the cosy homeliness of Liberty – albeit on a grand scale. The fact that around every corner peeps a carved wooden figure, peeking through the Liberty Print shirts, mischievous little links to the past. Anna’s favourite is the Elephant “It has really odd, strangely human ears, don’t you think?” My favourite has to be the lion, as it looks really worried and a bit scared. A cowardly lion, perhaps? This playfulness only adds the charm and character of the place.

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At the moment, Liberty is festooned with elegantly naive Christmas decorations, the golden chains harking back to the crepe paper ones of childhood, and hug from the original carved beams, some of which are from the ships that never made it to sea, some from the specialised wood turners Liberty employed, who would also make them to commission for your house, if you had sufficient funds for the task.

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The awe inspiring chandeliers which drop almost the full height of the building are always there, though these obviously aren’t original. “They replaced them in the 1990′s as the weight of the previous ones were found to be pulling the ceiling down!” Anna chuckled. “These are far lighter, and were chosen for their airiness while retaining that same grandeur.”
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There are far older chandeliers in the building, like this one which dates back to the opening of the 1920′s section, and according to Anna “…was once the longest chandelier in Europe. Or maybe it still is, I must admit I don’t know for sure.”

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Whether or not it’s still the longest original chandelier of anywhere at all, it is quite a sight to behold, and must be a nightmare to change a bulb in!

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The glowing ice-crystal like droplets really are magnificent, and I like the fact they are obviously very modern but with a splendour that seems to belong to an earlier age. This very much fits Liberty’s clever balance of strikingly new designer ranges and the incredibly classic patterns and designs they built their name on.

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Now when I come to Liberty, as well as gazing in awe at the thousands of Wondrous Things to buy, as I always have, I shall definitely be looking at the building itself a lot more. “There’s always more to see, I find new things all the time that I’d never noticed before, even more patched windows!” Anna tells us. She is based over at the Wholesale building across the narrow alley (that runs under the infamous bridge), but is in the Tudor-esque bit very often, on one fact finding mission or another. “People write to me from all over the world, sending me scraps of material from their bridesmaid dresses and trying to trace the pattern’s name.”

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It was a pity the Heritage Suite was still being used at the end of our tour, Anna had hoped it would be empty by then so she could show it to us. “It used to be the Director’s dining room,” she explained, “but is now hired out for various functions, meetings or events. Ooh, and if you ever have a beauty treatment here, you must get them to show you the room off the makeup hall which is all gold panelled and was used to formally receive Queen Mary!”

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Although there are several department stores around the world that have become tourist attractions in their own right, there can surely be few where the actual building and interior is so vitally important to the ethos of the company and the very goods they sell. Liberty sell you pieces of the dream you’re standing in.

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Home is where the heart is, and I lost mine to Liberty years ago…

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Liberty is my absolute favorite store, and whenever I am lucky enough to travel to London it is always my first stop. I never tire of the building itself, and visiting all my favorite departments is like catching up with old friends.There truly is no other store which can compare to the magic of Liberty!

Comment by Shelley McGeady

Oh it’s lovely, isn’t it? I think there’s so much to see that it would be almost impossible in one go! That’s my excuse for popping in every time I’m in London, anyway… ;)

Comment by beyondthepaleblog




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