‘A world of curiosityes’
How many stories can one picture tell? Caroline Bugler examines a 17th-century painting filled with mysterious treasures
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