The treasures in Norwich Castle’s enigmatic Paston Treasure painting take centre stage in a fascinating new exhibition
Part allegory, part cabinet of curiosity, this highly baroque and monumental tableaux painting by a mystery seventeenth century artist, has long intrigued public and scholars alike.
Painted by an unknown Dutch school artist around 1663 – 70, The Paston Treasure is now part of the collection of Norwich Castle Museum where it offers visitors a tantalising glimpse of one of the greatest private art collections of 17th century England.
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Commissioned by Norfolk’s Paston family, who in their heyday owned swathes of land in the North of the county, the huge painting measures over two metres in width and features an array of exotic treasures collected by Sir William Paston (1610–1663) and his son Robert Paston (1631 – 1683) on their travels around the world.
It features opulent fabrics, a lobster, musical instruments, animals – including monkeys and parrots, and two people; an unknown young black man who may have been a slave or servant and a white girl that most experts agree is Robert Paston’s daughter.
Today it may make for bizarre and slightly troubling viewing, but it is observed so accurately that experts have been able to identify the exact origin and, in some cases, the makers of many of the treasures it depicts.
Even the music shown in the musical score has been identified as a 1630 piece for two voices based on the legend of Orpheus, by little-known composer Robert Ramsay. The music has been recreated and can be listened to in this meticulously dissected exhibition.
Miraculously, five of the original surviving objects recorded in the painting have been found, including a pair of silver-gilt flagons, a Strombus shell cup, two unique nautilus cups and a mother of pearl perfume flask, which was made in India but discovered quite recently at auction in London.
The exhibition was developed with the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut and brings them all together for the first time in almost three centuries alongside musical instruments, rare timepieces, a globe, jewels, paintings (including one that features the grey parrot in the Treasures painting) and sculptures representing the kinds of objects that once graced the legendary Paston collection.
Meanwhile, X-radiography of the painting has deepened the mystery surrounding it. A ghostly figure of a woman has been discovered lurking beneath the pigments to the right of the canvas and underneath her the spectral remains of a silver dish. Both were evidently deemed surplus to requirements – perhaps the silver was sold and the lady fell out of favour – whatever the reason they were replaced with a diamond-shaped clock.
The painting’s many guises point to a complex relationship between painter and patron. Most scholars think it was commissioned by Robert Paston, the first Earl of Yarmouth to celebrate the collection he and his father had created. Robert, a keen alchemist who toiled in vain to discover the philosopher’s stone, may have also have influenced the exotic pigments used, some of which have now sadly faded, in the painting.
“Despite Civil War, exile in Rotterdam and heavy penalties imposed by Cromwell he continued to collect”
The elder Sir William’s contribution to the collection was thought to have been boosted when he went on an extended tour of Europe, the Holy Land and Egypt between 1638 and 1639. And although as an ardent Royalist the Civil War drove him into exile in Rotterdam in 1643 and he suffered heavy penalties imposed by Cromwell, including the surrender of £1,100 in plate, he continued to collect.
Robert also spent the Interregnum period of England’s republican government abroad, partly at the Court of Louis XIV from where he provided financial support to the future Charles II, for which he was knighted in 1660 and made Earl of Yarmouth in 1679.
In 1666 he was granted a lucrative customs farm, enabling him to augment both his collections and his country estate at Oxnead Hall, which Charles II visited in 1671. An early member of the Royal Society, Robert also associated with noted thinkers of his day.
Having thrived and survived throughout the turbulence of the seventeenth century, after Robert’s death the fortunes of the Pastons declined and the collection was dispersed in the eighteenth century, with a single Strombus shell cup and the unusual painting depicting it eventually being acquired in 1947 by Norwich Castle Museum, where it has delighted and baffled visitors in equal measure ever since.
Part of the Vanitas tradition, The Paton Treasure painting is interpreted by some as a typically sixteenth and seventeenth century meditation on the fragility of life and the certainty of death, but for twentieth century audiences it’s the journey into the world of two of the seventeenth century’s most voracious collectors, that bring it to life.
The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World is at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from June 23 – September 23 2018.
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
One of the city's most famous landmarks, Norwich Castle was built by the Normans as a Royal Palace 900 years ago. Now a museum and art gallery, the Castle is packed with treasures to inspire and intrigue visitors of all ages. The entire collection of this museum is a Designated…