Located in South Kensington, London, near the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most impressive London art museums. It houses probably the greatest collection of decorative arts in the world, including furniture, jewelry, carpets, sculpture, reliquaries, prints, fashion, and more.
The museum was founded in 1852 with the profits of the Great Exhibition as the Museum of Manufactures, and today its collections span two thousand years of art in virtually every medium. In 1857, when the Museum moved to its present site was renamed the South Kensington Museum, and in 1899 it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in memory of Queen Victoria’s contributions and the enthusiastic support which Prince Albert had given to its foundation.
Throughout the years the collections continued to grow, and today this museum houses a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. Among the objects displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the museum, there is a beautiful, 36 foot (11 meters) tall Morlaix staircase.
As written on the official website of the Victoria and Albert Museum, this oak staircase, dating from 1522–30, came from No. 17 Grand’Rue, the main street of the wealthy town of Morlaix, Brittany, in France. In 1900, this staircase was sold to Mr. J.H. Fitzhenry, an English collector, and he gave it to the museum in 1909.
Now a largely forgotten figure, J.H. Fitzhenry was once a well-known collector in London and patron of the arts like no other. He was one of the most prolific donors to the Victoria and Albert Museum, donating over 3,000 items, including the Morlaix staircase which was once a part of a timber-framed house, known as a ‘Maison à pondalez’ from the small town of Morlaix, France.
The town that dates back to the Middle Ages is located between the Leon and Tregor areas, and it was an important trade center to many British merchants in the 16th and 17th century. Among the glories of the town, there are the timber-framed houses with a unique architectural form called the ‘Maison à pondalez.’
These houses were built from about 1450 to 1630, and most probably they got their name from ‘pont’ and ‘aller’ (to go across a bridge) since they were constructed around a central staircase with wooden bridges leading to the rooms. Many of the ‘Maison à pondalez’ were the homes of nobles who demonstrated their wealth, social status and family background by building these houses with a grand stone fireplace and magnificent staircases which dominated the hall.
The staircase from No. 17, which is now displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was most probably sold to J.H. Fitzhenry because it was unsafe.
Carved figures and animals decorate the handrails of the staircase, and the panels of the landings are decorated with a linen-fold pattern. However, according to the museum’s website, the most prominent feature of the staircase is the offset newel post which supports the landings decorated with carved figures within niches, and the top of the newel post is carved with the figure of St John the Baptist, perhaps the patron saint of the original owner. Unfortunately, much of the carved detail has been rubbed away by people touching the woodwork.
We highly recommend a visit to the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the museum where you can see this magnificent oak staircase. However, the Morlaix staircase is just a tiny segment of this museum’s offer, so make sure to check out the museum’s website and prepare yourself for a long journey throughout history.