LAVER, James [1899 - 1975]

Born the son of a Toxteth printer and stationer James Laver achieved national eminence in two extremely different areas of endeavour. A very respected historian, he was Keeper of Prints, Drawings and Paintings for the Victoria and Albert Museum for over 20 years. Alongside his curatorial role he took to writing for extra income and in 1932 his rather ‘saucy’ novel Nymph Errant, was made into a musical by C. B. Cochran with music by Cole Porter and starring Gertrude Lawrence. The show and the novel were big successes and Laver became a well-known figure in the glamourous world of the 1930’s West end.

He was born on 14th March 1899, the son of Arthur James Laver and his wife Florence Mary (née Barker). His mother died when he was just 4 years old. His father ran a printing business, founded by his father which printed most of the customs forms for the Port of Liverpool. They were strict Congregationalists and imposed a puritanical grip on the lives of their children. At the time of his birth the family lived at 4 Teilo Street L8, later moving to 29 The Elms L8 (now demolished). James was not allowed to go to the theatre, only attending for the first time when an adult, so one can but guess what their response would have been to Nymph Errant. He attended the Liverpool Institute and New College Oxford, his university studies being interrupted by the First World war in which he served as a second lieutenant. Arriving in France two days before the armistice, he once commented that he was “the only soldier to receive a medal for each day of active service”. He was fortunate in enjoying the financial support of shipping magnate Lawrence D Holt who gave him £1000 enabling him not only to pay his fees and live comfortably but also to travel in Europe.

He began working for the V&A in 1922, the start of a 37 year career. His growing interest in the theatre was given a further push in 1928 when he married the Irish actress Veronica Turleigh. Although he deliberately chose not to earn his living solely ‘by the pen’, after the success of Nymph Errant he continued to write fiction and to undertake stage and film work.

His national fame lay mostly in his emergence as the first serious academic to study the history of fashion in a thorough and disciplined way. In the very early days of television he co-presented a short series on the history of fashion and an example of his wish to make the subject accessible he produced the amusing Laver’s Law on the cycle of fashion change.


10 years before it’s time


5 years before its time

Outré (Daring)

1 year before its time


Current Fashion


1 year after its time


10 years after its time


20 years after its time


30 years after its time


50 years after its time


70 years after its time


100 years after its time


His serious published covered many aspects of art both historical and contemporary and he was a noted, if not first rate poet, his work A Stitch In Time, a pastiche of the Rape of the Lock, being particularly successful.

Having overseen the safe storage of the V&A’s treasures at the start of the war in 1939 he was then removed to a job in the Treasury where he was, unsurprisingly, considered an unconventional civil servant. He was soon moved to work more in line with his abilities, addressing groups of workers to exhort them to invest in National Savings. Finding that he was spending many hours travelling by train he avowed to use the time to read all the books in the London Library in the occult section. He became a noted expert in this area and wrote a book on Nostrodamus.

He died on 3rd June 1975, aged 76.



4  Teilo Street L8

The Laver family home at the time of James' birth


Probably the best account of his life and work is the obituary which appeared in The Times, reproduced on the V&A website. The Wikipedia entry is also quite useful. There is a video clip of James Laver on YouTube in a British Pathé film Men's Fashions In Technicolour (although it is in black and white).James Laver wrote an autobiography, Museum Piece, [1963 André Deutsch] in which he writes extensively about his early years in Liverpool.