The Paston Treasure is a painting which depicts so much, in such detail, that you could gaze for hours and still not see everything before you. It tells a family’s story of great wealth, wonder and heartbreak.
Image: The Paston treasure, c.1670
The painting was commissioned by Sir Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth, in the 1670s and is thought to have been painted by a Dutch artist who visited the Paston family home at Oxnead Hall, near Aylsham.
A wealthy and cultured family, the Pastons amassed a large collection of more than 200 objects of art, decoration and natural curiosities from all over the world. The collection was gathered by Sir Robert and his father, Sir William Paston, who made many acquisitions travelling through Europe and on to Cairo and Jerusalem.
There were no public museums in the 17th century; having a household collection was a sign of your wealth and status. Royalty and nobility used to display their collections in special rooms known as a schatzkammer – German for ‘treasure chamber’. Owners would invite friends to view their collections to showcase their contents and initiate conversation and debate.
The Paston Treasure includes pieces that depict many themes including learning, wealth, culture, time and death. The large globe features prominently andindicates the scope of the collection, it has been positioned to show the East Indies, the ‘Spice Islands’ in the Pacific. Other worldly objects are the mounted seashells and ostrich eggs, the tobacco from America, a porcelain dish from Asia and the slave boy and parrot from Africa. There are many displays of wealth with gold and silverware from Holland and Germany, exotic fruits and the jewellery worn by the little girl and the young man.
The young girl is likely to be Robert Paston’s daughter, Mary, who died of smallpox in 1676. She is holding roses as a symbol of the fragility of life. Mary is part of the depiction of the passing of time and inevitability of death - as symbolised by the snuffed-out candle, the hourglass and the clock. It is believed that Mary died while the collection was being painted.
The young man with the monkey on his shoulder possibly came from Guinea or Benin and is the earliest known image of an enslaved African in Norfolk. There are no death records in the parish at Oxnead that identify this man, so it is thought that he was sold on to another family at some stage after the painting.
The Paston Treasure also holds the mystery of the ‘removed’ woman. When the painting was x-rayed, a shadowy image of a woman could be seen hidden beneath layers of paint where now stands the hourglass, the extinguished candle and the clock. She is thought to be Rebecca Paston, Robert’s wife and Mary’s mother. It is possible that she was painted out when Mary died and the space was re-used to depict the symbols of time and death that represent Mary passing and the sadness of her musical instruments falling silent.
The artwork is on display in Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery as part of the permanent collection. The Paston Collection was sold shortly after the painting was completed due to the family’s failing finances. The objects were separated back around the world but the strombus shell remains close to the painting as it now forms part of the Norwich Castle collection.
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