by Roderick Conway Morris

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Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
The Paston Treasure by an unknown Dutch artist, c.1663

Window onto a Lost World


By Roderick Conway Morris
NORWICH 31 August 2018

 

'The Paston Treasure' is an extraordinary painting of a unique English collection. One of the largest known still-lifes in the Netherlandish tradition, it shows a table heaped with precious gold and silver objects, intricately mounted seashells, musical instruments and other valuables, along with fruits, flowers and a giant lobster. Also depicted is a richly dressed black boy with a monkey and a young girl with blonde ringlets, holding a musical score with a parrot on her wrist.

Yet what is recorded here was just the tip of an iceberg of a collection once consisting of hundreds of gold and silver vessels, dozens of mounted shell cups, jewels, precious stones, statuary and table bronzes, tapestries, paintings, miniatures, drawings, clocks and timepieces, books and manuscripts, which filled the eighty rooms of Oxnead Hall in Norfolk. The collection was unparalleled in Britain at the time and on a par with the so-called Kunstkammer of such rulers as the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Vienna, Prague and Innsbruck, and the Medici Dukes in Florence.

'The Paston Treasure' was donated to the Norwich Castle Museum during the 1940s and provides a wonderful window onto a lost world. It has recently been intensively studied by a team of more than forty scholars in various disciplines on both sides of the Atlantic in a joint project between the Norwich Castle Museum and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. And it now forms the centrepiece of a fascinating exhibition at Norwich Castle, curated by Francesca Vanke and Andrew Moore.

Not the least attraction of the painting is the many mysteries that surround it, a number of which are elucidated by the exhibition and sumptuous catalogue, but some of which may never be solved. The author of the picture is yet to be identified. It is by the hand of an accomplished artist, who was unusual at the time in being equally skilful as a painter of still-life and of portraiture. Various Dutch painters of the era have been proposed, but so far all have been rejected on different grounds. A small contemporary still-life painting, juxtaposed with the 'The Paston Treasure' in the show, and containing an identical grey parrot, is almost definitely by the same hand, but this artist too is otherwise unknown, and the painting has been attributed for the time being to the Master of 'The Paston Treasure'.

Another curious feature of the canvas is that it employed an exceptionally large number of different pigments. X-ray and other scans have revealed that the objects were painted first and the figures and framing features, such as the pillar and scarlet curtain, afterwards. The items were evidently painted in sequence, suggesting that they were brought to the artist one by one or in small groups. Thus, the pictorial presentation of the whole glittering array is an artistic fiction, a process vividly evoked by a rare canvas also on display here. Dating from the 1660s, 'A Young Artist in His Studio with a Still life of Fruit, a Lute, a Violin, and a Globe', by the German painter Godfrey Kneller, who spent most of his career in London, shows the painter, palette in hand, flanked by two small tables bearing the various objects.

The Pastons were yeoman farmers in Norfolk who, during the Middle Ages, gradually increased their wealth and status until, by the end of the fifteenth century, they had become established county gentry. Clement Paston, a swashbuckling soldier and sailor, who had led successful actions on both land and sea for Elizabeth I, built himself a stately pile, Oxnead Hall, which became the family's principal residence.

Wealthier than many grander aristocratic families, they became collectors on an equally ambitious scale. And the greatest collector of them all was Sir William Paston, first baronet (1610–1663), who added vastly to the treasures he inherited from previous generations. William manifested a passion for study while at Cambridge, which left him with a lifelong interest in antiquities, science and the arts. He was not only a connoisseur but an adventurous traveller, who toured Europe and was 'carried by his ardent curiosity, into Asia and Africa'. These peregrinations enabled him to examine some of the great European Kunstkammern at first hand, and to acquire precious objects for himself along the way. Ferdinand II Grand Duke of Tuscany, for example, presented him with a beautiful inlaid pietre dure table top from the Medici workshops – flatteringly customized with the addition of four inlaid images of the Paston coat of arms – on display in the exhibition.

Their coat of arms has made it possible to identify a previously unknown capriccio painting in a private collection, now dubbed 'The Paston Perspective'; dating from around 1640 and featuring a grand palazzo and formal gardens in the Italian style, it was discovered just in time to be included in the show. Judging by the position of the old Oxnead church to the left of this new building, it is conceivable that, following his European travels, Sir William was entertaining the idea of replacing the old Elizabethan hall with an Italianate palazzo.

Sir William extended Oxnead Hall to accommodate his ever-growing mass of treasures and did much to improve both the house and grounds. Lady Bedingfeld recorded in 1675 that when she visited the house, she found 'a terrestiall paradise: the gardians so sweet: so full of flowers, and so pleasant: the hous so cleane and appeared so magnificent . . . nor did I ever in my life find anything in poetry or painting half so fine as what I saw that day'.

Of the precious objects depicted in the Paston Treasure, five have been positively identified and are displayed together with the painting: an enamel mounted strombus shell cup, a pair of silver-gilt flagons, two nautilus cups and a mother-of-pearl perfume flask. Also in the exhibition are many other objects that we know, through inventories, were either once in the Paston collection or are closely matched contemporary pieces.

Who commissioned the Paston Treasure painting, and when, is still unknown. But Sir William Paston himself is the most likely candidate and sometime in the 1660s the most probable date. At that time he had lost his younger son to smallpox in Paris and was in poor health himself. He also divided the collection in his will between his second wife Margaret and his son Robert. So there is a distinct possibility that he had wished to memorialize the collection in some way before his death. Intriguingly, scans have shown that on the right of the picture a silver platter has been overpainted with a portrait of a woman that was itself later replaced by a diamond-shaped wall clock. Robert Paston and his wife Rebecca did not get along well with his stepmother; it could be that he had Margaret's portrait removed from the work.

As Royalists during the Civil War, the Pastons suffered Parliamentary penalties including the sequestration of their estates, and William and Robert fell out over Robert's debts, some of which had been incurred to support the future Charles II in exile. Ironically, the marriage of Robert's son William Paston to Charlotte, an illegitimate daughter of the king, placed yet more financial burdens on the family as they struggled to maintain their social status. In 1676, Robert accepted the post of Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, an honour with no salary and ruinous expenses. The king's grant of an earldom three years later did nothing to ameliorate the inexorable financial downslide.

All the children of Robert's son William, Second Earl of Yarmouth, predeceased him, and the title and family line became extinct on his death in 1732. Oxnead was described by the end of the decade as 'nothing but a pile of rubbage'. The family collection was already being sold off by the end of the seventeenth century, yet the survival of 'The Paston Treasure' has conferred on this remarkable family and its collection a kind of immortality.

'The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World' at Norwich Castle Museum
23 June - 23 September 2018.

The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World
590pp. Yale University Press. £60
Andrew Moore, Nathan Flis and Francesca Vanke (editors)


First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022