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Maho Sakoda, Liberty and Japonism

2016 February 29
by lucinda matthews-jones

Maho Sakoda is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Her thesis explores the relationship between literature and art in the nineteenth century. It especially focuses on works by George Eliot in relation to contemporary artists and thinkers such as by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Pater, Simeon Solomon and Julia Margaret Cameron.

The shop floors of the world famous department store, Liberty at Regent street in London, are crowded with shoppers and tourists who are enchanted by the latest luxurious goods on sale. In fact, this thriving scene at Liberty has not changed since the store opened in 1875.

However, it is less known that the British department store was initially called East India House and dealt with Eastern objects from Japan, China, India and the rest of Asia. As the department store has just celebrated its 140-year anniversary in 2015, I would like to highlight two particular aspects of the history of Liberty, together with my brief report on a current exhibition Liberty in Fashion (9 Oct 2015-28 Feb 2016) at Fashion and Textile Museum. Firstly, I want to chart Liberty’s significant association with Japanese arts; Secondly, I will introduce Emma Louise Blackmore, Mrs Liberty, a keen photographer.

Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in 1843 at Chesham in Buckinghamshire. He took a position at Farmer & Rogers Great Shawl & Clock Emporium in 1862. It is noteworthy that this year was the same year in which the International Exhibition in London was held. The exhibition of 1862 housed a special Japanese section for the first time, displaying more than 600 Japanese objects.[1] It is believed that Farmer & Rogers had bought many of the Japanese artefacts from the exhibition and sold them at their new establishment, Oriental Warehouse, of which Liberty would later take charge. [2]

But why Japanese objects? In 1854, in signing the Kanagawa Treaty, Japan opened up to international trade, after the 200-year period of national isolation policy (1639-1853), also known as Sakoku— “The secluded country.” [3] During the 1860s, Japanese products become prevalent in Britain, and Victorian people, especially artists including James McNeil Whistler, Albert Moore, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti became avid shoppers and collectors of Japanese things, and frequented Oriental Warehouse where Liberty worked. The artists regarded Japanese art as innocent and primitive, without being contaminated by modernisation as it had been isolated for more than 200 years.

Liberty started his own business and opened East India House in 1875. This store was a composite of the art of the second half of the nineteenth century. It pervaded the taste of Aestheticism, and became a source of inspiration from Japanese art, while being closely associated with contemporary designers Christopher Dresser and E. W. Godwin, who produced an “Anglo-Japanese style.”

One of Liberty’s inventions would be “Art Fabrics.” Inspired by the kimono and exotic styles, the store introduced a “soft, languid, flowing look of the draperies.”[4] It seems that Liberty regarded clothes as fine art, and turned commodities such as clothes and furniture into aesthetic objects. This attempt eminently reflects one of the key aspects of Japanese art tradition. Prior to Westernisation in Japan, there was no art institution such as the Royal Academy of Arts nor were there art schools, only apprenticeship systems. (The first official art school in Japan was established in 1876 in order to emulate western fine arts) Mostly Japanese visual arts and aesthetic skills were conveyed and demonstrated through commodities such as fabrics, textiles, furniture, potteries, books or Manga/Comics, fans, scrolls, Netsuke, and folding screens. Thus, Victorians learned about Japan mainly through its crafts. By making painted furniture and decorative commodities and clothes, Liberty emulated these aspects of Japanese art culture, and attempted to elevate the taste of middleclass people by bringing decorations into their daily lives.


Emma Louise Blackmore: A Photographer

Meanwhile, had not been for Emma Louise Blackmore, Mrs Liberty, Liberty’s success would have been impossible. Her father, Henry Blackmore, established a West End tailoring business in London. He was a traditional Victorian as well as a strict Christian; therefore he was a stark contrast to Emma’s husband, who appreciated the dandy style and aestheticism. However, Emma persuaded her father to invest and fund Liberty. Without this investment nor Emma’s push, the department store might not have existed.

Mr and Mrs. Liberty

Mr and Mrs. Liberty

Emma privately published a photographic album entitled Japan: A Pictorial Record (1910). This album shows photographs she took when she travelled to Japan with her husband and an editor of the magazine, The Studio, Charles John Holmes, in 1889. The photographs are also shown in a book entitled The Diary of Charles Holme’s 1889 Visit to Japan and North America with Mrs Lasenby Liberty’s Japan: A Pictorial Record (2008). Although it is shame that I cannot show the images of photographs taken by Emma here, I can state that her photography reflects her artistic eyes and enthusiasm for other cultures. For instance, one of her photographs shows two Japanese waiting maids sat on the right side in front of a large folding screen, and the Japanese flower arrangement displayed on left side reminds me of paintings by Whistler.[5]

J.M. Whistler, Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) Freer Gallery

J.M. Whistler, Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) Freer Gallery

In Japan, Mrs Liberty and Holmes actively frequented exhibitions and local bazaars, enthusiastically studying contemporary Japanese art and crafts. Meanwhile, Holmes’s journal reads a comical occasion when their host served them a weird Japanese lunch: raw fish! The Victorian travellers were scared of eating sashimi (raw fish), poorly manipulated their chopsticks, and they just swallowed the sashimi without chewing, and politely asked for breads, instead.[6]

There are not many resources detailing the life of Emma Louise Blackmore. But considering her curiosity, enthusiasm for art, and brave attempt to try sashimi, her eventful life is worthy of further research.

[1] Ayako Ono, Binokoryu: Igirisu no Japonisumu, (Tokyo: Gihodo, 2008)
[2] Alison Adburgham, Liberty’s : A Biography of a Shop (London: George Allen&Unwin LTD, 1975), p. 13.
[3] However, Japan had traded only with Dutch from the port of Nagasaki.
[4] Liberty’s : A Biography of a Shop, p. 17.
[5] You can access the book in the British Library.
[6] The Diary of Charles Holme’s 1889 Visit to Japan and North America with Mrs Lasenby Liberty’s Japan: A Pictorial Record. Ed. Toni Huberman, Sonia Ashmore and Yasuko Suga (Global Oriental: Kent, Folkestone, 2008), pp. 7-8.

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Serena Trowbridge, The Palace of Art

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