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Staircase

  • Place of origin:

    Brittany, France (made)

  • Date:

    1522-1530 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oak

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mr J. H. Fitzhenry, Esq.

  • Museum number:

    A.8-1909

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, room 64b

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This staircase is recorded as having come from no 17 Grand' rue, Morlaix (Brittany, France), where it occupied a central, enclosed hall, and linked the rooms at the street front to those at the back, facing a yard. Only about ten of these timber-framed houses are still to be found in Morlaix. The distinctive, local form of this type of staircase with landings (pondalez from pont d'aller or 'bridge for going') gave such houses their name, maison à pondalez. It has been suggested that these town houses were built by local nobles, and that the house-plan recalled that of their rural manors.

The conspicuous offset newel post of this staircase is carved with a mix of late medieval ornament and with the figures of a bishop, St Clement, a king of France and St John the Baptist (at the top), perhaps the patron saint of the original owner. The balustrades enclose linenfold panels, popular all over northern europe 1460-1550, and are topped with post figures of St Catherine, along with peasants and beasts. Rich with carving, and lit dimly from below, such staircases must have created a magnificent effect within the tall, narrow space.

Physical description

Spiral staircase with carved newelpost, and linenfold landings at first, second and third floor levels.

The spiral staircase is supported by a central, plain, chamfered newel post (in three sections), and by an offset carved newel post (formed by a single timber). Short, curved, linenfold balustrades enclose the staircase and link the two newel posts at first, second and third floor levels. The curved balustrades were originally set within rooms of the front range of the house, and are supported on their outer edges by replacement wood and metalwork where they were originally built into timber-framed walls. Each short landing (the floors of replaced timber) is supported by a newel step (of replaced timber) cantilevered between the three sections of the newel post. The portion of the staircase originally exposed to view in the full-height hall is protected at each floor by a balustrade with gently curving upper and lower rails (each a single member) containing 4 linenfold panels.
The conspicuous offset newel post is a single member, carved in the solid along its full height with sections of nail, leaf, diagonal band and scale ornament, and terminating above the third floor in a standing figure of St John the Baptist, holding a lamb and a book. At the level of the lower rail to each balustrade the offset newel is carved with three other figures set within shell niches and standing on a pedestal with foliate mask: a king of France with fleur-de-lis crown and sceptre (below the third floor balustrade), St Clement with papal tiara, staff and anchor (below the second) and a bishop (below the first). Below the king, pope and bishop is a shield (blank) carved in the solid, encircled with a cord at second and first floor leve, and supported by an angel torso at ground floor level.
At first, second and third floor levels a short flight of steps protected by a straight balustrade with three linenfold panels rises to a horizontal landing (pondalez), fronted by a balustrade with 7 linenfold panels, the floorboards all replaced. At the end nearest the offset newel on each landing is a post surmounted by a figure carved in the solid: a kneeling male peasant eating a joint of meat and holding a cup (at first floor level), a kneeling male peasant pulling at his mouth probably in a gesture of derision ( at second floor level) and St Catherine seated in an armchair (of parchmain panels each side) wearing a headdress and crown, holding a book, and with a spiked wheel (at third floor level). At the further end of each landing is a terminal post surmounted by a figure carved in the solid: a baby dragon (at first floor level), a composite beast with cloven-hoof rear legs (at second floor) and a composite beast with cloven-hoof rear legs (at third floor), much damaged by common furniture beetle. The terminal post is supported by a replacement softwood post, a filler block at the top inscribed 'J Holland/ fixed these/ Stairs/ Oct 1909'

Fragments of paint exist on the balustrade carved figures, and apparently at the edges of the linenfold panels.

At first floor level, across the front of the balustrade and spiral balustrade is a horizontal line of wear/worm damage. This may mark the level of a timber floor installed (probably after 1700?) across the hall of the house in which the staircase stood, as this practice is known to have been carried out in other maison a pondalez, in order to render the full-height space of the main hall more practical. An arrangement of this kind is illustrated in Leloup (2002), p.165.

Place of Origin

Brittany, France (made)

Date

1522-1530 (made)

Artist/maker

unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Oak

Dimensions

Height: 10.15 m main structure (max: 11.5 metres with figure of St. John the Baptist), Width: 5.91 m, Depth: 2.24 m

Object history note

Given by Mr J. H. Fitzhenry, Esq.
RP 1909/AM 3730 [MA/1/F677/13]
This immensely thick file records the gifts and loans of J.M. Fitzhenry of 25 Queen's Gate. He, with Mr Salting, was given exceptional permission to enter the new building before its official opening. No provenance is given for the staircase except "an old house in Morlaix". It seems likely that it formed part of a large consignment of boiseries sent that year (in early summer from Paris directly to the Museum. Shipping bills and correspondence survive, but no records of the dealer. On 8 June 1899 Cecil H. Smith wrote to Mr Fitzhenry: "I am anxiously awaiting news of the Morlaix staircase, We have arranged a place for it in the West Hall, which I hope you will think satisfactory."
[Sarah Medlam, 25.2.1993]

Transferred from Sculpture collection to FWK - RP. 1926/123

Note from Nominal file, J.H.Fitzhenry (who gave numerous objects to the Museum in 1909 including substantial collections of continental ceramics):
no more information about the staircase is given except curatorial notes by A.B.Skinner urging acceptance of the gift of 'this large and fine oak staircase, taken from an old house at Morlaix in Brittany. The panels are carved with linen-fold pattern and the hand-rails are decorated with figures and animals. The centre-post which is 34 feet in height, is carved with figures within niches and ornament characteristic of that part of France; it is surmounted by a figure of St John the Baptist. Date about 1500.' The description on the approval form states '1 large staircase (exterior) from Morlaix...'

An undated letter, apparently sent to Fitzhenry and later passed to Skinner or Maclagan, found with various Sculpture dept. acquisition papers reads:
Monsieur, En réponse a votre lettre, j'ai l'honneur de vous fair connaître que l'escalier que vous avez achété à Monsieur Leroy, lui a été expédié de l'ile de Batz (Finistère) où de Morlaix son propriétaire l'avail transporté.
Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, mes civilités empressées
Pour M. Leroy Jh[superscript, Joseph?] Féret[?]

Sir, in response to your letter I have the honour to inform you that the staircase you have purchased from Monsieur Leroy, has been sent to him from the Ile de Batz (Finistere), where its owner had transported it from Morlaix. Yours... For M. Leroy, Jh Féret[?]`

A letter from Fitzhenry to Sir Cecil Smith, rec’d 3 Jan 1912, from Hotel Bellevue, 39, Avenue de l’Opera, Paris – offering to the Museum a ‘drum’ [ie tambour, vestibule] from ‘an Abbeville mansion’notes that was being offered by a dealer Heilbremmer ‘(from whom I have purchased nearly all my “Big” architectural specimens)’.
From Fitzhenry nominal file pt. 20 ma/1/f677/20 (weeded to 31st Dec 1935)

The staircase was installed in gallery 48 (south east corner) in 1909.

Daniel Leloup in La Maison Urbaine en Trégor aux XVe et XVIe Siècles (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1996) p.90, writes that the V&A staircase is referred to by A.de la Barre de Nanteuil ('Maisons à pans-de-bois à Morlaix', CAF, 1914, LXXXIe session tenue à Brest et Vannes, imprimé à Caen en 1919, note p.48-9), 'Cet escalier, provenant du n 15 de la Grand'Rue, fut vendu vers 1900 à un sculpteur de Morlaix à M Fitzhenry qui en fit don au musée du South Kensington.'

For an explanation of this type of staircase, from the Morlaix 'maison a pondalez', see Afterword by P. Jourdain in Daniel Leloup, Les Maisons a pondalez (Morlaix, 2005), translated below.

Historical context note

D. Leloup, Les maisons à pondalez, Morlaix, 2005
Translation of the afterword by P. Jourdan, chief curator of the Musée de Morlaix

Morlaix, though inhabited since Roman times, was in the 12th c. only a fishing town, which became part of the duchy of Brittany in 1187. Having become a prosperous city - thanks to its busy port - it suffered many invasions and severe looting [by the English] until the construction, in the 16th c., of the [chateau du] Taureau fort in order to protect the bay [harbour].

Thereafter the [prosperous] town began a busy export trade. Morlaix obtained the monopoly of the trade in crées, a linen cloth made in the area. This wealth attracted the impoverished local nobles, who saw a magnificent opportunity to make their fortune. They settled in the town and built houses whose plan recalled that of their rural manors.

In its current configuration, the Grand-Rue preserves the image of the rich medieval city as it lasted even after the renaissance period - even though none of the buildings that line it are prior to the 16th century.

Timber-framing, the traditional method of construction in northern France, is illustrated in Morlaix by a very particular type which is not found anywhere else in Brittany, as Daniel Leloup brilliantly points out [in the same publication]. The 'pondalez' house, the most frequent type of bourgeois town architecture, has a peculiar interior arrangement: between two main ranges with at least three floors, with jettied façades - one facing the street, the other a yard or garden - is a roofed empty central space sometimes known as the lantern. This appellation is recent (19thc.) and derives from later roof lights, but this space was originally covered with a panelled ceiling [de lambris de charpente]. This central living and reception space has on one side a monumental stone fireplace and on the other a spiral staircase with pondalez ("ponts d'allée"(landings) in carved wood, which give access to the back of the house. It is in these rooms [at the back of the house] that important business was carried on, where the family lived, where the best furniture, rich tapestries and silverware were kept.

The ornamentation of this staircase-ensemble is very rich: the balustrade panels of the staircase and landings, the centre-post surmounted by a patron saint. This richness in the ornamentation is also seen on the house façade, with figures of saints or historical figures at the corners of each floor.

On the ground floor at the front was a shop, whose counter opened onto the street, behind which a vestibule (sometimes ornamented with wood-carving) led to the staircase, from which it was separated by a door. From this vestibule one entered by a second door the heart of the building.

Only about ten of these houses are still to be found in Morlaix, between the Grand'Rue, rue Ange de Guernisac and rue du Mur, in particular the house so-called of "Duchess Anne", a private property entirely listed (classée is the equivalent of Grade I listed) in 1987 and opened to the public in 1997 after conservation and restoration faithful to its original state.

Descriptive line

Spiral staircase with three landings at first, second and third floor levels.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

D. Leloup, Les maisons à pondalez, (Morlaix, 2005)
Daniel Leloup, La Maison Urbaine en Trégor aux XVe et XVIe Siècles (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1996)
A.de la Barre de Nanteuil ('Maisons à pans-de-bois à Morlaix', CAF, 1914, LXXXIe session tenue à Brest et Vannes, imprimé à Caen en 1919
Daniel Leloup, Maisons En Pan-De-Bois De Bretagne: Histoire D'un Type D'architecture Urbaine (Rennes ?, 2002)
List of Works of Art acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum during the year 1909. London, Board of Education, South Kensington (19xx) [copy on Scp dept. index card]
Spiral Staircase of oak, with galleries and landings for three floors. From an old house at Morlaix, Brittany. FRENCH (Breton); early 16th century. H. 36ft. 8in. L. 19 ft. 91/2 in. Depth, 7 ft. 7 in. Given by J.H. Fitzhenry, Esq.
The balustrades spring from a tall column, which is elaborately carved with figures, shields, leaf-work, and intricated ornament. The top is surmounted by a figure of St. John the Baptist on a cap-like base. In the niche beneath is a king with sceptre; in the second niche is St. Clement bearing a staff and an anchor, and in the last niche is a bishop with book and pastoral staff. In the interspaces are two shields surrounded by ropes, a mask and a demi-angel bearing a shield. The balustrades have linen-fold panelling; to the left of the columns they slope upwards and are carved, while to the right they also slope upwards and then run straight. Upon the broad hand-rails are placed grotesque animals and figures, but there is in addition on the top rail a seated figure of St. Catherine. The rough steps are arranged round a plain pillar. The floors of the landings and galleries and a few of the steps were missing and have been replaced.

Labels and date

STAIRCASE
FRENCH (Breton); early 16th century

Given by J. M. Fitzherny Esq.

From a house at Morlaix, Brittany. [pre January 2001]

Production Note

Morlaix, France

Materials

Oak

Categories

Household objects; Woodwork; Architecture; Architectural fittings

Collection code

FWK

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