At the Yale Center for British Art, treasures from a lost 17th-century wunderkammer are reunited with a painting of its wonders.
Unknown artist (Dutch School), “The Paston Treasure” (1663), oil on canvas, Norwich Castle Museum & Gallery, Norwich, UK (courtesy Norfolk Museums Service)
In 1638, William Paston set out from his country house to see the world outside England. He’d recently lost his wife, Katherine, who’d died in childbirth, and he was seeking distraction. His travels began on the European continent, and like any tourist, he picked up souvenirs.
In Florence, he commissioned a pietre dure table, made with a secretive technique involving a wheel-driven machine that shaped semiprecious stones for inlaid mosaics. While most Englishmen ended their Grand Tour in Italy, he journeyed on to Egypt, stopping in Cairo where he rubbed elbows with John Greaves who was there to survey the pyramids, and likely picked up a couple of stuffed crocodiles to hang over his new table. Then he pushed on to Jerusalem, before circling back through Turkey and Greece to Italy again. As one of his last stops, he picked up some Murano glass in Venice.
Unknown artist (English), pair of Flagons (1598), silver gilt, cast, chased, engraved, and pricked (Untermyer Collection, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
By the time he returned to England, he had amassed a collection that made clear both his family’s wealth and his newfound ambition for worldliness. In 1639, his cousin Thomas Knyvett declared his collection a “world full of curiosityes.” Although his financial security took a series of blows — in part due to his son’s extravagant spending and the sequestering of his estates during the English Civil War — he continued to collect what he believed to be exotic. A 1683 inventory of Oxnead Hall’s “best closet”— or his cabinet of curiosities — included a litany of hundreds of naturalia (natural objects), artificialia (human-made objects), and scientifica (objects of science). It was a private museum, viewable by his lucky visitors. An epigram composed by Thomas Pecke to William declared: “Your Recreation, is to feed your Eyes, / With the most select Things, the Globe comprize.” Pecke went on to state that if Paston wanted to see “Englands choicest Rarity,” he should look in a mirror. In other words, by presenting the most wondrous objects in his home as an expression of global knowledge, and by traveling the world to obtain them, he was elevated in his country’s esteem. It was not hubris to attempt to contain the whole globe in one room, it was a quest to be praised.
The collection was short-lived. Two generations of Pastons later, it was dispersed and sold. Aside from the Pastons’ letters, which were saved by some antiquaries in the mid-18th century, the main record of the collection is a colossal painting called “The Paston Treasure.” The 8-foot by 5.4-foot canvas is a representation of a collection, with depictions of specific objects, but it also has generic imagery. Dutch still life tropes — cooked lobster, piles of ripe fruit, a globe, a lute, a trumpet, a parrot — mingle with 13 objects from the Paston collection: flasks adorned with tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl, a silver-gilt flagon, cups made from conch and strombus snail shells, a silver tankard, and vessels formed from nautilus shells.
Installation view of The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The artist of “The Paston
Treasure” is thought to be a Dutch itinerant painter. The only other known work attributed to the same artist is an oil on canvas painting from the 1660s that features the exact same African grey parrot that appears in “The Paston Treasure.” Like most still-life artists, he likely recycled imagery in his commissions. It’s unclear, also, whether the artist was commissioned by the traveling Sir William Paston, or by his oldest son, Robert. Robert likely oversaw its completion following his father’s death in 1663, which could explain changes that were made when the painting was almost finished. A recent X-ray analysis revealed a silver platter that was replaced by a woman, who was later covered with a looming black diamond-shaped timepiece. After William’s death, his will dictated that his possessions be divided between Margaret and Robert, leading to some tension over who would get what (perhaps including the silver platter). It’s possible that the woman was Margaret, or an allegorical figure to replace the silver platter. However, it could also be that the clock was chosen as a symbol of the passage of time, and that the painting memorialized the death of William.