A British department store’s disastrous experiment in human display.
WORDS ANJALI KHOSLA | ILLUSTRATION NICOLÁS ORTEGA
This piece appears in the upcoming Volume Five of our print magazine. Pre-order your copy today. The cost is currently pay-what-you-can to take into account current economic hardships.
The winter that spanned the end of 1885 and early 1886 was one of the coldest London had witnessed in decades. Snow fell from October to May. The pipes had frozen inside the glass walls of Battersea Park’s Albert Palace, an exhibition hall that served as a display case for about 40 South Asian people brought over from India to participate in a living “Indian village,” a publicity stunt hosted by the department store Liberty & Co.’s East India House to promote its oriental antiques and curios department.
“ Women from villages near Pune and Hyderabad huddled close to a fire. They hadn’t been fed for a week.”
Women from villages near Pune and Hyderabad huddled close to a fire. They hadn’t been fed for a week and had been working in England since November, having traveled by sea to participate in the spectacle. These women were nautch dancers, trained in an exquisite art of movement that dated back to the Muslim Mughal empire.
“They were to have only four hours’ work a day, and they were to be taken to all the sights of London,” The Times of India wrote. Men had been offered 75 rupees a month, 25 for women, for six months of service in Liberty’s constructed village, with the option to renew their contracts, a promised audience with Queen Victoria, and the expectation they would receive tips from the “village” spectators.
Ten years prior, in 1875, Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded what would become Liberty & Co. in Regent Street’s bustling, high-end shopping district. Liberty was obsessed with all objects “oriental”—Persian rugs, temple hangings, inlaid dressers, brilliant ceramics, Indian brass work, Chinese lanterns, jade and lacquer ornaments, the peacock feathers that would later be featured in iconic Liberty motifs, Indian silks and gauzes, and delicately embroidered Kashmiri shawls. He was also close to many radical artists and designers of the day, including the Tonalist James McNeill Whistler and Arts and Crafts movement icon William Morris, who would go on to design many of Liberty’s most beloved prints, like his 1883 “Strawberry Thief” pattern, inspired by the thrushes who used to eat berries out of his garden.
Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti scoured Liberty & Co. for silks with which to drape the models in their paintings. “Mssr. Liberty” threw glamorous parties for potential customers, networked with lords and ladies, and counted the day’s fashionistas among the store’s greatest ambassadors. Oscar Wilde declared Liberty & Co.’s East India House “the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”
Indeed, Aesthetic, Orientalist, Japonisme, and burgeoning Art Nouveau movements (Walter Crane and C.F.A. Voysey being just two of the leading designers commissioned by Liberty to create prints) were all very much part of the world Liberty created, manufactured, and sold. The store played a pivotal role in a moment of great convergence: art and commerce, the countercultural and the mainstream.
The British public was utterly enchanted. “Liberty was the place to see and be seen, a venue where architects, designers, artists, aesthetes and society figures met,” writes historian Linda Cluckie in Rise and Fall of Art Needlework. Liberty in the late 1800s was an exotic, sumptuous experience for Victorian shoppers—a wonderland of hanging silks and embroidered phulkaris and elephant howdah, a sensual display of Imperial conquest, and an “oriental ‘dreamworld’ for the metropolitan consumer ... an imaginary experience of the colony through its elaborately staged commercial displays,” as the art history professor Saloni Mathur puts it in India by Design.
“You wander through the numerous rooms of their great storehouse as in an enchanted dream,” raved the New York Mail. Another visitor referred to the store as “Aladdin’s cave.”
As Fiona MacCarthy describes it in The Guardian, shopping at Liberty meant that “you too could look like Janey Morris in a Rossetti portrait wearing a deep blue dress.”
I was a kid the first time I visited Liberty, during a family vacation with my parents. They took me to London several times when I was growing up, all of us packed in a room at the same Holiday Inn on Cromwell Road, standing in line at Leicester Square’s half-price theater booth in the mornings, going to museums all afternoon, spending our evenings eating Indian food and casually seeing Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave perform in a play by Noël Coward or David Hare. And then there were the stores where we always went for a wander: Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, and Liberty.
Liberty’s flagship Tudor-style store was built in the 1920s with wood repurposed from two ships: the HMS Impregnable and the HMS Hindustan (the latter spent much of its British employ floating in the icy waters of the North Sea). It’s a small department store by New York standards. Walking in through the main entrance, one encounters the flower shop, the scarf hall, and the stationery room. The second and third floors play host to luxury womenswear and the emerging designers. The store took on a particular magic for me in the pre-Instagram era of my teens and twenties, as I posed nonchalantly for photos in front of pale, disinterested mannequins and rifled through the highly curated racks, cutting-edge clothes hanging side by side with big names like Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney, praying that someday I’d be able to own an Alexander McQueen skull clutch. It was so thrilling to be exposed to designers whose wares were not available at my local Macy’s, even as I despaired over the price tags.
The top two floors are reserved for Liberty’s famous textiles and its homewares and furnishings, both new and antique: Tibetan carpets, delicate prints, inlaid boxes, and mirrored cushions. I learned how to spot my homeland in part by wandering this British floor with my mother: what Rajasthani embroidery looked like, the differences between a Persian and an Indian rug. I loved to lean over the railing and look down at the central atrium. Liberty couldn’t be more removed from the mall superstores of my youth—the dark balconies tiled with large white panels of pigs and birds, the vaulted glass roof. To me, it all felt so English, so British.
“ To love Britishness is to love immigrant cultures—or so I thought when I was a teen.”
What makes something British? British is the Union Jack and the bearskin helmets soldiers wear outside Buckingham Palace; British is the Queen and fish and chips and tea. Sephardic Jews introduced the fried fish; potatoes were first retrieved from “the New World” of Central and South America; and tea was brought over from India and China. One of my favorite pastimes with my mother is drinking Earl Grey out of one of the beautiful French or English or Japanese sets she has collected over the years. To love Britishness is to love immigrant cultures—or so I thought when I was a teen. London seemed like a multicultural oasis when I was young, at least compared to the homogenous Midwestern city where I grew up. I would go to England and see Indian people on TV shows and interracial friendships on the streets. I believed in the North London I read about in Zadie Smith’s book White Teeth. But I read the news every day, and I know that England is going the same direction as the rest of the world: more racist, more right-wing.
I also know that to love Britishness is to love imperialist display. If I give in to the beauty set before me, then what and who am I betraying? And why is it my job to suffer through that question? It’s not that I think Indian things should only be for Indian people, but the space between appreciation and appropriation is in part determined by how much more value the taker places on an aesthetic than on the people who created it. In Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, he writes of a fictional Parisian department store in the late 1800s: “Palaces had been emptied, mosques and bazaars plundered.” I do not suppose that Arthur Liberty imagined that they had been plundered for me.
Gentlemen and gentlewomen thronged Albert Palace’s recreated village, a hodgepodge of compressed Indian cultures. “It presents in a small space a variety of typical Hindoo industries, and is peopled by forty-five natives from different districts of India, of different castes and creeds,” pronounced the Illustrated London News. “On entering the village, the houses of which are accurate representations of Indian architecture, the eye is caught by the variegated and brilliant colours of Oriental fabrics and costumes.”
Indeed, along with the dancers, on display were all sorts of human beings: silk spinners, weavers, metalworkers, sandalwood carvers, embroiderers, gold- and silversmiths, conjurers, a sitar-maker, acrobats, musicians, wrestlers.
“One of the most interesting occupations is that of the potter, who, with his wheel of ancient type and his fingers, moulds a variety of articles of beautiful symmetry, if of simple character,” wrote the Illustrated London News.
As the English gawked, the Indian ladies swirled. The bells chained around their ankles sang their pretty warning. “The nautch dancers, of whom there are three, go through a series of graceful evolutions to the accompaniment of strange and monotonous music,” the Illustrated London News reported. It made no mention of how the British spectators sometimes took it upon themselves, uninvited, to fondle these women as they spun in a surreal and cartoonish imitation of their homeland.
“ The Albert Palace Association eventually gave the beleaguered “villagers” some boots, scarves, pants, and coats—which only served to annoy their British onlookers.”
As the temperatures plummeted into 1886, so did the village organizer’s coffers; the Brits who had assembled this human tableau for Liberty had hit financial straits. As The Indian Mirror snarked about the village, “All who touched it went straightaway to bankruptcy.”
To the villagers’ great peril, the organizers did not hold up their end of the bargain. The Indian Mirror later wrote, quite accurately, that the “artisans and entertainers were grossly deceived.” They were not provided with the room, board, and clothing they needed to survive the difficult winter; their housing was “miserably furnished and in a very dirty state,” according to a firsthand account published in The Times of India. Thirty of snake charmer Sheikh Imam’s cobras and rock snakes died, coldblooded and vulnerable to the chill. The Albert Palace Association eventually gave the beleaguered “villagers” some boots, scarves, pants, and coats—which only served to annoy their British onlookers.
“A few of [the villagers] wore English hats; and you cannot imagine how thoroughly a ‘billycock’ can vulgarize the Asiatic type of head and face,” one newspaper source complained. “It was rather odd to see a pair of jingling ankles over big hob-nailed boots,” moaned another. Meanwhile, a reporter with The Times of India noted the miserable looks on the performers’ faces. Liberty’s Indian village was turning into a public relations disaster.
Pashmina shawls were too costly for most English consumers, so at various moments in the first half of the 19th century, both the British and the French attempted to import pashmina goats to Europe. Hundreds of Himalayan goats died in the Pyrenees. A ship full of female pashminas drowned at sea, rendering their heterosexual male counterparts on an accompanying ship forever kidless.
Meanwhile, foreign manufacturers began churning out lower quality prints to meet high European desire. This was one reason why, in the 1880s, Arthur Liberty switched his emphasis from importing fully produced Indian textiles to importing raw textile materials, like handwoven silk or unprocessed pashmina wool, in order to manufacture “Liberty Art Fabrics” in Great Britain, embellishing them with floral designs inspired by the ones he used to import and labeling his Liberty-branded wares “Made in England.”
Take, for instance, Liberty’s “Mysore silks,” which were handwoven in India before being dyed and hand-printed in England, then promoted as “exact reproductions of old Indian prints.” New designs were commissioned by some of the most celebrated artists of the day and anointed with East-West names like “rangoon poppy,” “Allahbad marigold,” and “poonah thistle” in Aesthetic-era hues.
“I reached out to Liberty to ask them about South Asian representation among its buying team or in its print design group, but never received a response.”
One of Liberty’s most popular materials debuted in 1879 with the entirely made-up, Indian-sounding name “Umritza Cashmere,” meant as a more affordable version of the Kashmiri woolen shawls already beloved by the moneyed British public. “A proved success” available in “ever-changing variety,” proclaimed an 1885 Liberty advertisement for Umritza Cashmere that ran in the Sporting Gazette. Women’s magazines celebrated the Umritza Cashmere’s “very foreign appearance,” according to India by Design.
There are over 40,000 items in Liberty’s in-house archive, and Liberty’s current textile artists frequently take inspiration from and refer back to prints Liberty created in the past. The paisley design, now ubiquitous in the West, originates from the Persian boteh motif, a droplet- or bud-shaped symbol thought to represent the cypress tree, a Zoroastrian symbol—though its origins may go back even further. The shape made its way to India during the Mughal Empire. For Punjabis like me, this shape is known as ambi.
As the British imported more and more Indian textiles for sale in the UK, demand for buta-emblazoned Kashmiri shawls grew and grew. In the early 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, the little Scottish town of Paisley doubled down on its “paisley” shawl production, churning out cheap imitations of the pricey Indian version—the original “fast fashion.” This all had a devastating effect on Indian artisans, because these imitations, along with other British-made textiles were, in turn, sold back to the Indian populace. The buta was reshaped and renamed after the town. The Lord Paisley is now one of Liberty’s classic patterns, and its designers return to and play upon it, again and again.
In 2018, Liberty launched a “Made in India” campaign, at one point dedicating over 3,000 feet of its store solely to the display of modern and vintage Indian homewares. “It’s all about the juxtaposition of the old and the new—like a shiny New Delhi tower block that’s right next to a crumbling Mughal temple,” Liberty’s website explains. It acknowledges that during the Victorian era, “Indian designs were prized by a British audience for their vivid tones—this was due to their perceived exoticism, as well as to India’s more advanced colouration techniques.” In Liberty’s online store, I find a vibrantly hand painted ceiling of an Odisha temple on sale for £2,495.00, marked down from its original asking price of £4,995.00. I reached out to Liberty to ask them about South Asian representation among its buying team or in its print design group, but never received a response.
Despite decades of longful browsing, I’ve still never actually purchased anything at Liberty, neither a pencil nor a bar of chocolate. Yet it is still on the list of places I make sure to visit when I’m in town, even if I’m on a work trip, even if I’m only there for a few days.
Afterward, I’ll pop over to one of my standby restaurants, many open since I was a child. Where I grew up, I only ate Indian food at home; it was not popular where we lived. I visited the UK more often than India, and so I came to associate London with that cuisine. When I am Indian in America, I am the descendent of immigrants who came here for a better life. When I am Indian in India, I am an American. When I am Indian in England, I am a descendent of the Commonwealth. A little bit of Britishness has been burned into my bones at great cost to my ancestors, the ones who fought in British wars or were forced to migrate from their family homes.
Sometimes I’ll sit alone at a table and enjoy a quick panipuri, or I’ll eat an entire dosa with my fingers. Sometimes I order a whole feast of bhindi and dal and aloo matar and relive that childhood feeling of having found something out in the world that truly belonged to me despite my in-betweeness, my lostness, something that was appreciated by other people—even if there was so much else about me, and people like me, that they did not.
As Liberty sold Indian culture to the English in Albert Palace, the villagers’ plight grew even worse. In February of 1886, the villagers protested their situation at Wandsworth Police Court, to no avail. The Albert Palace Association terminated the display, stopped feeding their distressed Indian performers, and cut them off from their salaries. A London barrister of Indian origin, Nanda Lal Ghosh, pulled together a group of local Indians and Brits to advocate for the villagers’ rights. Back in India, newspapers promoted a relief fund for their stranded countrymen. One member of the troupe died.
It was not the first or last time Black or Brown people would be turned into marketing exhibits in the West. As John Zubrzycki writes in Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, the phenomenon was quite the trend in the 19th century. Another Indian village had been staged in London around the same time as Liberty's project and more—including Japanese “living villages”—occurred in the years that followed, from the United States to Australia to the UK—including London’s Colonial and Indian Exhibit of 1886, which was staffed mostly by inmates from the Agra Jail.
“It was not the first or last time Black or Brown people would be turned into marketing exhibits in the West.”
“Strange that the idea of public exhibition ... be consonant with European Civilization,” wrote The Hindoo Patriot of these zoo-like stunts, a jab at Europeans’ belief that they were the most “civilized” tribe in the world.
At long last, the village administrators agreed to send their stranded charges back to India. As the Liberty villagers languished on the long and arduous journey home, the Indian media relayed the news of their return. “[The villagers] come back in a very helpless and miserable plight,” The Times of India wrote on March 18, 1886. “The ‘show’ was a failure from the first; and even before it started, the financial arrangements of the original promoter of the scheme broke down ... No food had been supplied to the members of the company for a week, and their salaries were in arrears.”
“The Receiver of the Estate is now sending them back to Bombay, but no one is in charge of them, and they are penniless,” the paper concluded. Upon arrival in India, each was to be handed about five shillings. “Not a very munificent sum as a result of their English adventure, and certainly not enough to defray the cost of travelling up-country and to give them another start in life.”
This piece appears in the upcoming Volume Five of our print magazine. Pre-order your copy today. The cost is currently pay-what-you-can to take into account current economic hardships.