By Haydn Brown.
Research in recent years uncovered lost 17th-century treasures once owned by the Paston family of Norfolk. In 2018 this treasure was brought together in an exhibition that was held at the Castle Museum in Norwich; included in the items displayed was a picture, named ‘The Paston Treasure’ (circa. 1663). This painting has been described as an enigmatic masterpiece commissioned by either Sir William Paston, first Baronet (1610–1663), an epic collector and traveller who got as far as Cairo, Constantinople and Jerusalem; or his son, Robert Paston first Earl of Yarmouth (1631–1683), to mark his father’s death in 1663. Robert himself was a passionate amateur scientist (believed to have accounted for the unusual number of different expensive pigments that were used in the painting) who practiced alchemy for years but failed to turn base metal into much-needed gold. He was to die in 1683, aged 52, overwhelmed by debt which was partly caused by the ruinous cost of lavish hospitality, including a party for King Charles in 1671; also, after a life scarred by gout, scurvy and depression. However, the identity of the Flemish artist, working out of a makeshift studio at Oxnead Hall around 1663, is not known, although there have been suggestions.
The painting was given to the Norwich Museum in 1947 by a descendant of one of the buyers from the Paston’s 18th-century “garage sale” and was regarded then as a historical curiosity rather than a major work of art – it was “very faded, of no artistic value, only curious from an archaeological point of view.” However, its eerie atmosphere and teeming detail have mesmerised generations of visitors. In 2018, and in a partnership between the Norwich Museum and the Yale Center for British Art many of the painting’s secrets were decoded.
At the time of the exhibition the Curator, Dr Francesca Vanke, said that the event was:
“A once-in-a-lifetime event [that] tells both a very Norfolk story and a genuinely international one. The painting is not just a typical 17th century still life, but the key to unlocking a fascinating, dramatic and ultimately tragic story: of a family, a collection, and a great house. The first clues to the story are in this painting. They open up a world we never knew existed, for which evidence is scattered worldwide. This exhibition, the result of years of research, brings everything together.”
The exhibition, in fact, reunited ‘The Paston Treasure’ painting with some of the rare works of art that the painting depicts; it also shed new light on the Paston family itself, their Norfolk home, and the rise and fall of one of 17th century England’s most important private art collections. The exhibition also displayed the recently discovered painting ‘The Paston Prospective’, which dates from around 1640, a couple of decades before ‘The Paston Treasure’, and features a grand imaginary building that it is thought could have been a vision of what Sir William Paston wanted to create at Oxnead.
The Paston family possessions, plus many of the surviving objects depicted in the painting, were brought together from museums and private collections in Europe and the US; this was the first time in 300 years that they could be placed together in a single venue. On view were five treasures from the 16th and 17th centuries that appear in the painting, one of a pair of silver-gilt flagons, a Strombus shell cup, two unique nautilus cups, and a perfume flask with a mother-of-pearl body. A host of other objects, many with Paston provenance, depicted the rich story of collecting within the family from the medieval period until the moment the painting was created. However, the Paston collection was sold off within two generations of the painting’s completion.
The Paston family is beloved by historians for a unique set of medieval letters tracing their family and financial affairs in vivid detail. By the mid-17th century they were rich, powerful landowners. When they commissioned The Paston Treasure painting, a swaggering boast of their wealth and culture, it was also a vanitas, with the hour glass, the ticking clock, the flowers and fruit which will decay and rot, the reminders that life is fleeting and death inexorable. The Pastons could not have guessed how true this was for them: there would be many deaths in childhood including the little girl in the painting. Robert’s son, William, would inherit massive debts, and instigated the disposal of the treasures; this began far earlier than previously thought for the research mentioned turned up a sale receipt dated 1709. Finally, Oxnead Hall itself was sold and, by 1732, William was bankrupt, with debts equivalent to £17m today. So, within two generations the family was overwhelmed by debt, the treasures scattered in a series of sales, and their huge house, Oxnead Hall, abandoned and then sold, and later almost entirely demolished in the 18th century.
Pre-exhibition research also identified the sheet music being held by the pale little girl shown in the picture. She was Robert Paston’s daughter who died in childhood. The handsome young African boy has still not been identified, but because the identifiable details are so meticulously accurate, the researchers believed that he must, like the girl, been a real person and possibly had lived in the Paston household. Jonathan Wainwright, professor of music at the University of York, had pored over photographic enlargements of the sheet music held by the little girl and identified it as an appropriately doom-laden piece by the Scottish composer Robert Ramsey, “Charon, O Charon, Heare a Wretch Opprest”, written in 1630. The music itself was so meticulously painted that he could read it. Only one manuscript of this music still survives and that resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The first recording of the song was commissioned by the Castle Museum from the Royal College of Music and was played during the Norwich exhibition.
Wainwright also traced a second musical reference, though in the painting of the tiny book held by the satyr on the golden stem of the shell cup was too minute even for his eyes. However, on the real cup, which came on loan from the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft, he could read the words of a popular 16th-century round song – again dealing with death – “Je prens en gré la dure mort”.
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