Treasures collected by a Norfolk family almost four centuries ago have been reunited for a remarkable exhibition focused on a painting which has mystified generations of experts
The Paston family’s treasure, collected in a fascinating exhibition
One of the greatest private art collections of the 17th century was put together by a Norfolk family – and immortalised in a lavish and mysterious painting.
Within decades the Paston family was bankrupt, its possessions dispersed and its grand mansion crumbling.
The painting, The Paston Treasure, now in Norwich Castle, has puzzled art historians for centuries. It depicts a dazzling array of expensive and exotic objects including gold and silver, musical instruments, fruit and flowers, a lobster, a monkey and a parrot. The treasures in the painting are just a fraction of the remarkable collection put together by one of the wealthiest families in Britain.
But they are shown alongside symbols of time, vanity and death, and the painting, by an unknown Dutch master, proved eerily prophetic.
Within less than a century the aristocratic titles were lost, the treasures sold and magnificent Oxnead Hall, near Aylsham, where a Paston one entertained Charles II, abandoned.
For the past five years experts from the castle, and from the Yale Center for British Art in the USA, have been researching the history of the painting – and
tracing its treasures.
They have found five of the actual objects shown in the painting, including cups created from shells, silver and enamel and a mother of pearl perfume flask.
When they could not find the exact object, they borrowed similar musical instruments, timepieces, jewels, sculptures and more, from museums and collections around the world.
Joint curator Francesca Vanke of Norwich Castle said: “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.”
The Paston Treasure, unknown artist, Dutch School, c1663, oil on canvas. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery Picture© Norfolk Museums Service Motherof-pearl flask, unknown artists, Gujarat and (probably) England, early seventeenth century (body), and...
LEFT: Mounted strombus shell cup, attributed to the workshop of Stephen Pilcherd and Anthony Hatch, London, ca. 1660, shell, gilt brass and enamel. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery © Norfolk Museums Service BELOW LEFT: Mounted nautilus cup,...
LEFT: Surviving pair of flagons, unknown maker, English, based in London, 1597/98, silver- gilt, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Irwin Untermyer.