V&A no.1 – Breton Staircase

Photography: George Marshall | Date:

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting an event this Friday called Eat, Ride, Sleep, Repeat. A celebration of the design culture inspired by the bicycle, it will feature portraits of museum staff and their bicycles taken by Rapha Survey photographer George Marshall.

Name: Nick Humphrey.

Role at the V&A: Curator of Furniture (1400-1700).

Where do you commute from?
Westbourne Grove, which is only a gentle couple of miles through Kensington Gardens, and especially nice in the summer. A little further would be welcome if it weren’t for the traffic lights.

Is this your typical attire for around town?
It varies according to whether I’ll be working at the museum or in our stores (which tends to involve crawling under furniture and getting grubby). This is what I’d wear for ‘Work of National Importance’, such as inspecting furniture from the national collection out on long-loan to historic houses around the country. This is when I can combine my work (cataloguing) with a long ride through the countryside outside London. For obvious reasons, I try to plan these between April and October.

Cycling is a hobby that seems to attract cerebral types. Why is that?
Mmm, it seems to attract its fair share of beefy, thoughtless types too. But I do think the combination of independence, the mechanical and physical, the efficiency, simplicity and ‘flow’ is a no-brainer really. And the hats are good.

You have an interesting story about one chair in your gallery.
Yes, it’s a star piece in our new Furniture Gallery – Marcel Breuer’s radical B3 armchair of 1925 – the first tubular steel chair. Walter Gropius wanted Breuer to design a new kind of chair for his new buildings at the Bauhaus in Dessau, and Breuer described the‘lightbulb’ moment he had while riding his Adler bike, when he realized that the strength and light weight of extruded steel tubing could be applied to furniture. His usual furniture manufacturer laughed at the suggestion, so Breuer bought some lengths of seamless tube and found a plumber to help weld a prototype. Just think of all those tubular steel chairs stacked up throughout the twentieth century.

What’s the significance of the room where you had your portrait taken by George?
This lovely day-lit space was created for the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries in 2009 by glass-roofing the space between two exterior walls. This fabulous Breton Staircase was constructed in the 1520s and acquired in 1909, and has been on display ever since (many visitors remember it from childhood visits). I was lucky enough to spend
two years working on it and crawling all over it to plot the joinery, admiring the linenfold landings, sculpted treads and the carved newel post reminiscent of a ship’s mast. The staircase linked the front and back ranges of the house it was built for, looming over a full-height hall, lit only by a great fireplace on the ground floor – it must have been a stunning piece of architectural theatre. At the top are statues of St. John the Evangelist and St. Catherine who are presumably the patron saints of the original owners of the house, Jean and Catherine. You can still see one of these staircases in its original location in Morlaix and one day soon I’m going to visit. As I bought my first cycling shorts and jersey in Brittany, it goes without saying that I’m going back there by bike.

Tell us about the jersey you are wearing.
The advantages and perils of the global village: New Zealand merino wool, woven in China, bought through a website in Oregon. I took the phrase Sero Sed Serio (Late but in Earnest) to heart as I lived and worked in William Cecil’s Elizabethan prodigy house in Lincolnshire, Burghley – it’s the family motto. The back reads correctly but they got the front mixed up, but it’s the back view that counts when I’m hunched over my front wheel.

And I see you use a Carradice saddle bag.
Indestructible! I still have the panniers that I saved up for aged 15. The saddlebag gets a lot of attention when I’m riding in Italy where British design is still really admired.

Describe your bike.
All my bikes are steel, partly because they’ve all been bought second-hand and partly because I want bikes to last. And steel adds a quota of one-upmanship when I’m riding with friends on carbon and titanium, assuming that I can keep up. It was built about 1995 by Gigi who runs the town shop in Castel San Giovanni south of Milan where my wife Francesca comes from (and where we spend holidays – me on a very similar Rossin with identical Campagnolo parts). I have absolutely no idea where Thronic Doppio Spessore tubing fits into the Columbus story, but it’s sprightly and rides much more smoothly than my 1981 crimson Scapin (my first Italian hand-built bike and very beautiful). My local shop in All Saints Road, the fantastic Bicycle Workshop, put me onto the lovely tall Nitto stem which I need as my back occasionally gripes.

What is style on a bike?
You’ll have guessed that I’m a bit of traditionalist, so I’d say that its 1. clean lines on the bike, 2. la souplesse in the legs, 3. a camera and a notebook in the back pocket, 4. a patient companion and, whenever possible, 5. a good lunch. As far as I’m concerned 1 and 3 are givens; 4 and 5 occasional; 2 remains a distant fantasy.

Favourite journey by bike in the city?
I like most of London after midnight, especially riding the Thames bridges. Kensington Gardens on a summer evening is special (provided no one is riding at more than 5 mph), gliding past the games of office rounders, the burqa picnics, and er, the roller-bladers.

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