Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Treasure Seeking

Five years ago I went with my friend Christine to the Norwich Records Office to see an exhibition about the Paston Letters. These letters were written during the 15th century by an influential Norfolk family. The collection is interesting because of the diversity of the correspondence - both in the authorship and the content of the letters. 
This year Norwich Castle is holding an exhibition entitled "The Paston Treasure : Riches and Rarities Of The Known World". It is all about this painting
Painted around 1655, by an unknown artist, this is an amazing 'Vanity Piece' - not just a regular still life composition  but one designed to showcase the treasures belonging to this family. At this point, the family were at their most wealthy, hosting visits from the King at their mansion [Oxnead Hall] bringing back souvenirs from trips to Europe and the Holy Land... And they wanted to keep a record of these things.

And so the painting displays their refined tastes [art, music, fashion, foods] exotica, scientific interests. We see a lobster, a monkey, shells, plus a young girl and an African youth. But there are subtle messages too - clocks, fading flowers and fruits, and a guttering candle- symbolising time passing, decay, vanity and death.
And modern techniques have enabled us to discover more about how the painting evolved- and was changed during its execution...
There are mysteries - who commissioned the piece? who painted it? who is the girl? who is the African slave? The music book under the girl's hand shows a song about mortality "O Charon, Charon"  - and only recently has this song actually been identified. It was written in 1630 by a Scotsman, Robert Ramsay - just one manuscript survives [in the Bodleian Library] At the exhibition you can listen to the first ever recording of this piece
Meanwhile on the shell cup, the golden stem portrays a satyr holding a tiny music book. The real cup is on display [loaned by the current owners, the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft] and now experts have managed to decipher that song too [another 16th C round, also about death!]
It is believed that either William Paston - an epic traveller and collector commissioned the work- or maybe his son Robert, to mark William's death in 1663. It is believed the little girl is Robert's daughter who died in childhood.
But Robert spent his fortune lavishly [especially on entertaining the King] he died aged just 52. The family went into decline, overwhelmed by debt. The treasures were sold off and Oxnead Hall was neglected, then mostly demolished in the 18th century.
Scholars have been fascinated by the treasures and research has gone on for many decades. The painting was originally sold in 1709, and in 1947, the then owners, the Buxton family of Norfolk, donated it to Norwich Castle Museum. I have enjoyed reading about this artwork [eg here]
Of the 130 objects depicted, just the whereabouts of just 5 are known - and they have been reunited for this exhibition, for the first time in 300 years. Other items of a similar style and period have been brought together to give a better idea of what treasures the Pastons enjoyed.
We both really enjoyed this, and learned a lot about the family and the time in which they lived. Your regular Norwich Castle entry fee includes entry to this exhibition - so we were able to visit the keep, the Roman and the Egyptian sections. Well worth seeing  *****


  1. What would you put in a painting about your treasures, I wonder...
    FatDormouse xx

  2. This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing x

  3. that is so interesting, I never know there were such things as "Vanity Paintings." We will not be travelling south of Cumbria this trip. so won't have a chance to see it.

  4. How interesting! I love social history - thank you for this.

  5. Absolutely fascinating! Thank you for sharing this with us. I always learn something new when I read your posts. :)


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