A couple of days ago, I found myself amidst all the hustle and bustle of London’s Regent Street shortly after sunset and it was only then that it really hit me – like a sledgehammer – that, in commercial terms, Christmas is here! Whilst some of the smaller arcades managed to capture something of the Christmas spirit of an earlier age, the festive lights of one of London’s most famous shopping streets had all the subtlety of Vegas but then, as luck would have it, I glanced to my left before crossing Great Marlborough Street and my eye fell upon the familiar sight of one of the city’s most well-known department stores, its distinctive mock-tudor shop frontage one of the most memorable you are ever likely to come across yet so unassumingly tucked away that I very nearly missed it.
Liberty of London, for me, captures more of the essence of what Christmas shopping is all about than any other shop of like scale. Opened in 1876, the store retains much of its original character as a purveyor of “decorative furnishing objects”, many of them sourced from exotic places (the basement was originally named the Eastern Bazaar). Today, a stroll around the store is still a sensory adventure: packed with fabrics, furnishings and rugs, what is largely a visual feast is complimented by opportunities to explore the more select end of the perfume market, sample fine chocolates and, of course, purchase fresh flowers without even having to leave the building.
In its heyday, Liberty worked very hard at encouraging new English designers, in particular those of associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Noveau. It was known for being frequented by the arty-set of London from the days of the Pre-Raphaelites onwards and it still retains something of an arty reputation, employing its own window designers to create what are often quite surreal displays. Liberty fabric designs, used for both clothing and furnishings, are still much sought after and seem to be enjoying something of a comeback, yet again, if the fact I have clocked them being used in highstreet shops such as as Zara Home and Kew in recent months is anything to go by.
Best of all, this entire shopping experience is set inside a Tudor-revival building that was constructed using the timber of two ships! Nooks and crannies, fireplaces and woodpanelling are characteristic features of the building, all set around three light wells that give the impression of standing in the galleried hall of a country house. In the few years since my last visit, it seems to have altered very little and the core feeling it offers remains intact. I spotted teenage girls sat with legs curled under them in one of the leaded-light window seats pouring over books from a display, exotic rugs were strewn across the floor, the fabric sample books beckoned me into nooks wallpapered with a patchwork medley of stunning designer wallpaper and fireplaces piled high delicious notebooks and sketchpads made me want to stand on tip-toe to handle items that I hardly need but which, I could imagine, would look equally great strewn around my own cluttered living environment.
Where so much of the modern shopping experience fills me with an absolute dread of Christmas shopping (I spent part of last weekend in a shopping centre that was very typically over-lit, over-heated and over-packed with stressed looking shoppers who were being subjected to over-loud Christmas music of the variety that leads to sudden outbursts of shopping-rage), Liberty seems to bring the pace down several notches, along with the lighting and the blood-pressure. I didn’t buy anything but I had a really good look, stroke, sniff, handle and I enjoyed every single moment of it.
Coming out of the store through its flower shop entrance encapsulated the whole experience for me: where so much of Christmas these days seems to be about brighter, louder and more and more full-on, this sudden profusion of evergreen foliage interspersed with shades of red, purple, dusky pink and terracotta set against the half-timber and wood panelling of this glorious building captured more of the spirit of Christmas, for me, than the whole of Regent Street and Oxford Street put together.
The main entrance of Liberty of London can be found in Great Marlborough Street, London.