The Morlaix staircase-once a part of a timber-framed house in France, now displayed in the V&A Museum

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Milica Sterjova
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The town of Morlaix, in Brittany, France, was inhabited in Roman times, but it was a simple fishing town in that period. As a result of the active port, it later became a prosperous city.

Until the construction of Taureau Fort, it’s main goal was to protect the bay, it was often looted by the English. In the following years the town began an active export trade. The main product was a linen cloth produced in the area called crées. Local nobles saw a great opportunity to make a fortune, so they moved to the town and began building houses whose plans resembled those of their rural manors.

Morlaix with its viaduct in the background Photo credit

These houses are known as ”maison à pondalez“, are the most frequent form of bourgeois town architecture. Timber framing is very common in this area but houses in Morlaix have particular characteristics which aren’t found anywhere else in Brittany.

People started building them in the 15th century and they became wide spread in Morlaix during the 16th century. A small number of these houses still exist in the town.

Morlaix, la maison à pondalez Photo credit

The ground floor area of the house was smaller, allowing the proprietor to pay less tax. The surface area grew with each floor creating architectural hangings. Two most important parts of the central section of the house were a sizable fireplace on one side of the hall and a wooden winding staircase on the other side.

The staircase was richly ornamented, as was the facade of the house. The peculiar form of these staircases with landings gave the name ‘maison à pondalez’ (‘pont d’aller’ translates as ‘bridge for going’).

The timber-framed houses in Morlaix, France, were constructed around a central staircase with wooden bridges leading to the rooms

The staircase displayed at Victoria an Albert Museum in London, came from a house at 17 Grand Rue in Morlaix and it dates from 1522-30, according to the museum. It occupied a central hall and it linked the rooms in the front facing the street with those in the back facing the yard, as was common for this type of house in Morlaix. The magnificent winding staircase was given to the museum in 1909 by J.H.Fitzhenry, a well-known collector. He donated a large number of objects to the museum including a valuable collection of continental ceramics.

The staircase from No. 17 is now displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The spiral staircase is supported by a central plain newel post and an offset newel post, which is a single piece, ornamented with various figures and leaf-work. It ends above the third floor with a figure of St.John the Baptist holding a book and a lamb.

He was, most probably, the patron saint of the original owner. Below the third floor balustrade there is a carving of a king of France with a scepter and a crown. One level down is St.Clement and underneath him is a carving of a bishop. The handrails and the panels of the landings on every level are also rich in carvings of people and beasts. Unfortunately, much of the carvings were destroyed as the years passed, mostly by people touching the staircase as they passed along.

The oak staircase from No. 17 Grand’Rue

The beautiful oak staircase can be seen in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the museum, along with other objects that are a part of a splendid collection of pieces. The Victoria and Albert Museum is the home of more than 2.3 million objects and is one of the most remarkable museums of art, design and performance in the world.