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The Paston Treasure

The Paston Treasure at Norwich Castle

Paston Treasure

The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (June 23-September 23) brings together rare works of art originally featured in an enigmatic painting which was a microcosm of the-then known world and chronicles one of the greatest private art collections of seventeenth century England.

"The painting is not just a typical seventeenth century still life, but the key to unlocking a fascinating, dramatic and ultimately tragic story: of a family, a collection, and a great house," says Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art at Norwich Castle Museum, and curator of the exhibition.

A Painting Like No Other

Central to the exhibition is a large (1668 x 2475mm), mysterious oil painting, dating from circa 1665 by an unknown artist. Entitled The Paston Treasure, the painting's unique and cryptic subject has mesmerised and puzzled art scholars and historians world-wide for centuries.

A visually stunning work of art, it dazzles us with a lavish display of gold and silver, exotic objects, musical instruments, fruits and flowers, a lobster, a monkey and a parrot, in addition to portraits of a young girl and an African youth.

The treasures depicted in the painting represent a fraction of what was one of the most remarkable, privately assembled cabinets of rarities and curiosities in seventeenth century England, owned by a famous Norfolk family – the Pastons, whose country seat was Oxnead Hall outside Norwich. The Paston Treasure was clearly commissioned to promote the family's wealth and sophisticated artistic taste.

Taking the painting as the starting point, curators from Norwich Castle together with art historians from the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, USA, have created a fascinating exhibition focusing on the art works and objects that feature in the perplexing painting and the questions it presents. The exhibition is the culmination of five years of intense collaborative research involving numerous experts in a wide variety of artistic disciplines and has resulted in several exciting discoveries.

Miraculously five of the actual objects from the original painting survive and for the first time in three centuries these significant works will be reunited with the painting.

These include a pair of silver-gilt flagons, a Strombus shell cup, two unique nautilus cups and a mother of pearl perfume flask.

These extraordinary survivors will be supplemented by other items such as musical instruments, rare timepieces, a globe, plus jewels, history specimens, miniatures and sculptures replicating other riches featured in the painting and the collection. Prestigious international lenders to the exhibition include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Chicago Institute of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Collection and many others.

At its zenith the Paston collection, listed in surviving archives, ran to hundreds of spectacular works of art and was of a scale and grandeur that could have graced a royal palace. Hardly anyone in England at that time, royalty included, had collections that came close.

Sadly however the Pastons and their magnificent collection were doomed and the painting proves eerily prophetic. It shows us far more than just a straightforward ostentatious display of riches. There are strong hints that all is not as it seems. The artist includes many motifs – flowers, fruit, clocks, a guttering candle, symbolising time, vanity, and death.

The Pastons over-reached themselves hugely both in their spending and their ambitions and within less than a century were bankrupt. By the 1730s the collection was sold, the male line had died out and their magnificent home, Oxnead Hall, where they once entertained King Charles II, fell into disuse. Only one third of the house now remains.

The exhibition, comprising a total of more than 130 objects sourced from a host of national and international museums and private collections provides an extraordinary glimpse into what was undisputedly one of the most splendid treasure houses to have ever existed in this country.

Norwich Castle website

Norwich Castle

About the Paston family

The first known records of the Paston family date to the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The family must have originated from the village of Paston about 20 miles north of the City of Norwich. From quite humble peasant origins, by the time the Paston Treasure painting was commissioned, the family were among the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the county.

William Paston (1528–1610) was knighted in 1578 and founded the Paston grammar-school at North Walsham (where the young Horatio Nelson attended) and made Oxnead Hall, near Norwich, the family’s principal residence. It was at Oxnead that the Paston’s remarkable collection of treasures was housed.

Christopher Paston was Sir William's son and heir, and Christopher's grandson, another William (d. 1663), was created a baronet in 1642. William travelled extensively through Europe between 1638 and 1639 going as far as Jerusalem. He acquired many treasures on his travels, which were then sent back to Oxnead. William’s son Robert (1631–1683), who was a member of parliament from 1661 to 1673, inherited the title and was subsequently created Earl of Yarmouth in 1679.

It was Robert’s daughter Margaret Paston whose portrait is most likely included in the painting. Margaret like her father was fascinated by alchemy and against her parents’ wishes, but due to an inheritance from her grandfather, eloped with the Italian ambassador in the 1670s to Venice where she established her own alchemical workshop specializing in pharmacology.

Robert's son William (1652–1732) the second earl, married a daughter of Charles II. When he died in 1732, with no male heir, the Paston titles became extinct and the land and Paston treasures were sold off.

About the painting

Which of the Pastons commissioned the painting is not known. It might have been Sir William Paston (1610-1662/3) or his son Robert Paston, who later became the first Earl of Yarmouth (1631-1683). Likewise not much is known about the artist other than he or she was highly accomplished. The painting’s style and genre are very much in the Low Countries mode - hence the artist was probably Dutch. Current research suggests a date for the picture no later than the first half of the 1660s.

The painting was donated to Norwich Castle in 1947 by a member of the Buxton family, who were also originally from Norfolk. The bequest also included several other seventeenth century items, some with definite and others with likely Paston provenance, some of which are also included in the exhibition.

There is a record that the Buxton family purchased artefacts from one of the sales held at Oxnead Hall in the early eighteenth century, when the Pastons were rapidly heading for bankruptcy. Though the individual items from that sale were not listed, it seems most likely these objects were included and thus stayed in the Buxton family for more than 240 years.

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