Sir Nicholas studied Classics at King’s College Cambridge (1955-1958) and as an undergraduate regularly visited the Fitzwilliam Museum, where his interest in objects and their makers and patrons was stimulated by seeing the ‘superb’ Drayton House and astrolabe clocks by clockmaker Thomas Tompion, given by Ernest Prestige to the museum in 1947.
Although on graduation he followed the family tradition of a stockbroking career, this immersion in a museum collection catalysed a parallel career as a decorative arts scholar, resulting in the publication of seminal works such as English Barometers, 1680-1860 (1968; 2nd ed. 1977) and Matthew Boulton: Ormolu (1974; 2nd ed. 2003). He became honorary keeper of furniture at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1967 and was president of the Furniture History Society for 30 years, retiring in 2020.
He also retained a lifelong interest in museum collections and their importance to cultural life in the UK, chairing the National Arts Collection Fund (now the Art Fund) (1986-2002) and the Courtauld Institute (1982-2002). In 2004 he led a review of museum funding, leading to the submission of a report to HM Treasury ‘Securing the Best for our Museums. Private Giving and Government Support’.