‘A world of cu­rios­i­tyes’

How many sto­ries can one pic­ture tell? Caro­line Bu­gler ex­am­ines a 17th-cen­tury paint­ing filled with mys­te­ri­ous trea­sures

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Edited by Caro­line Bu­gler

Caro­line Bu­gler ex­am­ines a paint­ing filled with trea­sures

WHEN Thomas Knyvett went to stay at Oxnead Hall in Nor­folk in 1640, he was so over­awed by the col­lec­tion of trea­sures be­long­ing to his cousin, Wil­liam Pas­ton, that he told his wife he wasn’t sure when he would re­turn home be­cause he ‘might spend an­other week there and not see all the rareties. In­deed heer is a world of cu­rios­i­tyes and some very rich ones’.

It would cer­tainly have taken Knyvett a long time to ad­mire all the trea­sures the Pas­tons owned, be­cause, ac­cord­ing to an­cient in­ven­to­ries, there were about 600 of them. Some were kept in spe­cial cab­i­nets and oth­ers were prob­a­bly scat­tered among the 80 rooms of the house.

The Pas­tons had risen from the ranks of the pros­per­ous yeo­manry to be­come one of the most im­por­tant fam­i­lies in 17th­cen­tury Nor­folk. Their stand­ing in the world is doc­u­mented in the vo­lu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence be­tween them and other in­flu­en­tial peo­ple that was later pub­lished in The Pas­ton Let­ters at the end of the 18th cen­tury. As they rose to power, they man­aged to build up one of the most dis­tin­guished col­lec­tions of art ob­jects in Bri­tain—the kind of assem­bly more usu­ally seen in the cab­i­nets of cu­riosi­ties be­long­ing to Euro­pean princes than in the homes of the English gen­try.

Most of the ob­jects were prob­a­bly ac­quired by two well-trav­elled mem­bers of the fam­ily: Cle­ment Pas­ton (1523–98), who went to Europe dur­ing his mil­i­tary and naval ca­reer, and his de­scen­dant Sir Wil­liam Pas­ton (1610– 63), who vis­ited Italy, Egypt and Jerusalem and re­turned with all man­ner of trea­sures.

Some of these prized items are dis­played in The Pas­ton Trea­sure, an in­trigu­ing paint­ing that be­longs to Nor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum and which is the fo­cus of an ex­hi­bi­tion that has just opened there. The re­sult of a 10-year re­search project, the show in­vites us to linger over each lov­ingly por­trayed ob­ject in the pic­ture, to imag­ine the world in which it was pro­duced and to ask why such an enig­matic and frankly odd com­po­si­tion was put to­gether in the first place. To help un­ravel the puzzle, the paint­ing is dis­played along­side some of the ac­tual ob­jects it de­picts, as well as pieces that rep­re­sent the items the Pas­tons owned and works of art that were painted at about the same time, in­clud­ing one pic­ture thought to have been ex­e­cuted by the same anony­mous artist.

The painter of this ri­otous cor­n­uopia was prob­a­bly an ex­pa­tri­ate Dutch artist who was sum­moned to Oxnead Hall specif­i­cally to de­pict some of the fam­ily’s most val­ued heir­looms. He or she would have been

We ask why such an enig­matic and frankly odd com­po­si­tion was put to­gether

pre­sented with a se­lec­tion of ob­jects, each clev­erly cho­sen to re­veal the Pas­tons’ so­cial and in­tel­lec­tual ac­com­plish­ments, the re­fine­ment of their tastes and the breadth of their trav­els. Their world was sur­pris­ingly in­ter­na­tional: these trea­sures had ended up in their home thanks to ex­ten­sive trade net­works that stretched across the globe.

We can date the paint­ing more or less pre­cisely be­cause noth­ing in it can have been made later than the 1660s.

There is some­thing un­de­ni­ably odd about the com­po­si­tion. It is as­sem­bled like a stage set, with a swagged cur­tain draped the­atri­cally across the top. The items, de­picted with such fine at­ten­tion to de­tail that they’re clearly por­traits of spe­cific pieces, al­most look as if they have been stuck onto the can­vas, like im­ages pasted into a scrap­book. This has re­sulted in some strange quirks of scale—the lob­ster, for ex­am­ple, looks enor­mous com­pared with the girl.

Even if the whole com­po­si­tion was planned in ad­vance, it seems as if ob­jects were added and sub­tracted as it was be­ing painted, per­haps in ac­cor­dance with the whims of who­ever com­mis­sioned it, cre­at­ing a glo­ri­ous jum­ble. It doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the fa­mil­iar cat­e­gories of lux­u­ri­ous ban­quet­ing scene, still life or sub­ject pic­ture, but em­braces all of them.

Os­ten­ta­tious still lifes were fash­ion­able in North­ern Europe at the time, but this paint­ing also in­cludes liv­ing crea­tures. A mon­key perches on the shoul­der of the young black man and a par­rot has landed on a book of mu­sic held by the young girl.

Al­le­gories of the five senses were in vogue as well and the pic­ture evokes them all. The mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, the tick­ing clock and the watch sug­gest sound; the fruit and lob­ster re­fer to taste; the flow­ers to smell; and the var­i­ous textures of wood, metal, shell, cloth, fur, feath­ers, hair and glass, as well

The in­stru­ments would make a ghastly ca­coph­ony if they were all played to­gether

as the fin­ger­boards of the divi­sion viol and the lute, to touch. The su­perb crafts­man­ship on dis­play is pleas­ing to our sense of sight.

There are also fea­tures that are tra­di­tion­ally found in van­i­tas and me­mento mori paint­ings, which re­mind view­ers of the fragility of life and in­evitabil­ity of death: the ex­tin­guished can­dle, the clock with its long hand point­ing to just be­fore 12 (the ‘fi­nal hour’) and the hour­glass. Even the mu­sic in the song­book held by the young girl,

Charon, O Charon heare a wretch op­prest

by Robert Ram­sey, is an ex­change be­tween the in­fer­nal boat­man, Charon, and a sup­pli­cant re­quest­ing pas­sage over the river Styx —a dra­matic ren­der­ing of the theme of pass­ing from life to death.

The girl’s open mouth and the mu­sic in front of her show that she is most likely singing this gloomy verse, but the mu­si­cal in­stru­ments that sur­round her—a dou­ble-headed lute that could have ac­com­pa­nied a solo voice, a sil­ver trum­pet more suit­able for cer­e­mo­nial fan­fares, a vi­o­lin, a recorder, a danc­ing mas­ter’s fid­dle and a divi­sion viol—would have made a ghastly ca­coph­ony if they were all played to­gether. Per­haps they aren’t meant to rep­re­sent an en­sem­ble, but to be viewed in­di­vid­u­ally, with the trum­pet stand­ing for male val­ues, pos­si­bly mil­i­tary ones, and the lit­tle danc­ing mas­ter’s fid­dle rest­ing on the girl’s arm as­so­ci­ated with the accomplishment she would have been ex­pected to ac­quire. The other in­stru­ments would have been used in cham­ber per­for­mances.

What­ever the mean­ing be­hind this seem­ingly ran­dom com­bi­na­tion, the skill re­quired to make and play these in­stru­ments would have been ad­mired, as would the crafts­man­ship needed to make the time­pieces. They also re­flect the mu­si­cal in­ter­ests of the fam­ily.

For­tu­nately, amid all the un­cer­tainty, we can be rea­son­ably sure who lit­tle girl is. She has been iden­ti­fied as Mar­garet Pas­ton, who was about 10 at the time, a much-loved daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter—a Pas­ton ‘trea­sure’ in her own right. The song she is singing might be a la­ment for her grand­fa­ther, Sir Wil­liam, who died in 1663.

It’s pos­si­ble that Sir Wil­liam com­mis­sioned the paint­ing shortly be­fore his death to com­mem­o­rate the col­lec­tion he had built up. He had pre­vi­ously sold some of his trea­sures to pay off his son’s debts and bought them back when he could. He had also lost a cer­tain amount of valu­able plate in the Civil War, so the pic­ture may have been in­tended to cel­e­brate the fact that much of the col­lec­tion had been kept in­tact. If Sir Wil­liam com­mis­sioned the pic­ture, it might have been in­com­plete when he died. If so, his son Robert could have re­quested a few changes and turned it into a poignant me­mo­rial.

If the paint­ing was in­tended to dis­play the Pas­ton fam­ily’s most cher­ished ob­jects, it is in­ter­est­ing what they selected from their vast col­lec­tion. They demon­strate a taste for both the nat­u­ral and the man­made. There is an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of shells, which are shown both in their nat­u­ral state and mounted, turned into bot­tles and ew­ers. Shells such as these were won­ders from re­mote parts of the world that were just be­gin­ning to be reached by grow­ing in­ter­na­tional trade and diplo­macy.

Nau­tilus and tur­ban snail shells came from the Indo-pa­cific and the strom­bus shell the young man holds in his left hand came from the West Indies, al­though its bras­sand-enamel mount was made in London. The mother-of-pearl per­fume flask could have come from Gu­jarat in In­dia, al­though the mounts may have been added in London. The sil­ver-gilt mounts of at least two of the nau­tilus shells were made in Hol­land. Sir Wil­liam could have bought them in a shop in Am­s­ter­dam, as he was in the Nether­lands in the 1640s as a Roy­al­ist ex­ile.

He may have picked up the globe in the city, too, as, al­though it was made by a Flem­ish globe­maker, it bears the arms of the city of Am­s­ter­dam. Globes and maps were a clear in­di­ca­tion of sta­tus, be­cause cul­ti­vated mer­chants felt they should know some­thing about the coun­tries and cul­tures they dealt with in or­der for trade to flour­ish.

The sil­ver flagon the young man clutches with his right hand would have been made in London and the sil­ver tankard dec­o­rated with danc­ing cu­pids was prob­a­bly fash­ioned by a Ger­man crafts­man. The blue-and-white porce­lain dish from which the lob­ster spills is one of the many Chi­nese ce­ram­ics that were im­ported en masse to Europe in the 17th cen­tury, be­fore Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ers mas­tered the tech­nique of mak­ing porce­lain them­selves. The enamel watch ly­ing on the ta­ble was pro­duced in Paris—an ex­pen­sive ‘must-have ac­ces­sory’ that was val­ued more for its dec­o­ra­tive qual­ity than its time­keep­ing, which was poor.

Sir Wil­liam had trav­elled to North Africa in the 1630s and the vervet mon­key, grey par­rot and ex­pen­sively dressed young man are all ex­otic crea­tures as­so­ci­ated with Africa. It’s im­pos­si­ble to say whether the man was a ser­vant in his house­hold, but he doesn’t seem to be par­tic­u­larly def­er­en­tial and looks like some­one with a dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­ity.

X-rays have re­vealed that there was once a third per­son in the pic­ture: a woman who oc­cu­pied the space at the up­per right now filled by the clock and cur­tain tas­sel. There is no real ev­i­dence for her iden­tity—she may have been an al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ure or an ac­tual per­son, per­haps Sir Wil­liam’s sec­ond wife, Mar­garet, with whom his son Robert and his wife were not on the best of terms. It may be that Robert had the im­age of his step­mother painted over af­ter his fa­ther’s death. This might ac­count for the fact that this area of the paint­ing seems to have been fin­ished hastily, to a less high stan­dard than the rest.

In any case, the paint­ing is a swan­song for a re­mark­able col­lec­tion that was about to be bro­ken up. Robert had al­most bankrupted the fam­ily fi­nances in 1657 in his ef­forts to sup­port the King liv­ing in ex­ile in France. By the late 17th cen­tury, the fam­ily for­tune was in de­cline and, by the mid 18th cen­tury, the fam­ily was bank­rupt, the earl­dom ex­tinct, ev­ery­thing sold and Oxnead Hall aban­doned.

The paint­ing was ac­quired by the Bux­ton fam­ily, who had bought sev­eral items from Oxnead Hall. When Maud Bux­ton gave the paint­ing to Nor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum in 1947, she was oddly dis­mis­sive of it, say­ing it was ‘very faded, of no artis­tic value, only cu­ri­ous from an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal point of view’.

Few would agree with her now. The pic­ture may never give up all its se­crets, but it con­tin­ues to mes­merise any­one who sees it.

‘The Pas­ton Trea­sure: Riches and Rar­i­ties of the Known World’, or­gan­ised in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Yale Cen­ter for Bri­tish Art, New Haven, Con­necti­cut, USA, is at Nor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum & Art Gallery un­til Septem­ber 23 (www.mu­se­ums.nor­folk.gov.uk/nor­wich-cas­tle)

Above: The Pas­ton Trea­sure.

Right: A cup with a strom­bus shell, of about 1660, pos­si­bly the one grasped in the young man’s left hand

Ex­otic shells from dis­tant lands fash­ioned into ves­sels in Europe: a nau­tilus cup (far left) and a mother-of-pearl per­fume flask

One of this pair of sil­ver-gilt flagons, 1598, is held by the young man in the paint­ing

Sir Wil­liam Pas­ton, who gath­ered many of the trea­sures on his ex­ten­sive trav­els

Mon­keys and Par­rots, about 1660, at­trib­uted to the Mas­ter of the Pas­ton Trea­sure, about whom noth­ing is def­i­nitely known

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