The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World

Thursday, February 15, 2018
Sunday, May 27, 2018

The seventeenth-century painting The Paston Treasure (ca. 1663) is an enigmatic masterpiece. Commissioned by either Sir William Paston, first Baronet (1610–1663), or his son Robert Paston, first Earl of Yarmouth (1631–1683), the identity of the painter, a Dutch itinerant artist working out of a makeshift studio at Oxnead Hall, remains unresolved, although candidates have been proposed. Adding to its mystique, the painting defies categorization because it combines several art historical genres: still life, portraiture, animal painting, and allegory. It has provided the opportunity to think anew about seventeenth-century studio practice and the painter-patron relationship. The painting made its North American debut at the Yale Center for British Art in this exhibition, organized in partnership with the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, UK.

Exploring the world of the Pastons, a landowning family of Norfolk famous for their medieval letters, this display included nearly 140 objects from more than fifty international institutional and private lenders. On view were five treasures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that appear in The Paston Treasure painting: one of a pair of silver-gilt flagons, a Strombus shell cup, two unique nautilus cups, and a perfume flask with a mother-of-pearl body, which were gathered together for the first time in more than three centuries. A host of other objects, many with Paston provenance, told the rich story of collecting within the family from the medieval period until the moment of the making of the painting. The collection was sold off within two generations of the painting’s completion, resulting in its worldwide dispersal today.

A film created for the exhibition, entitled The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other (produced for the Center by Cultureshock Media, narrated by Stephen Fry, and set to music by Griffin Brown, TC ’18), explained the recent technical analysis performed on The Paston Treasure, helping audiences to understand how the painting was made and elucidating how the new research was invaluable in answering some of the riddles that have puzzled generations of scholars regarding the authorship and making of this strange and fascinating picture.

Unknown artist (Dutch School), The Paston Treasure (detail), ca. 1663, oil on canvas, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, UK, courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service

The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World was curated by Andrew Moore, former Keeper of Art, and Senior Curator, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. At the Center, Nathan Flis, Head of Exhibitions and Publications, and Assistant Curator of Seventeenth-Century Paintings, served as the organizing curator, along with co-organizer Edward Town, Head of Collections Information and Access, and Assistant Curator of Early Modern Art. At the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the organizing curator was Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art. The curatorial team was assisted by Jessica David, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Center, and by Elisabeth Fairman and Sarah Welcome, Chief Curator and Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, also at the Center.

This exhibition was accompanied by a publication of the same title, co-edited by Moore, Flis, and Vanke. Underwritten by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation and published by the Center in association with Yale University Press, the book draws upon scholarship in a range of fields, including art history, musicology, the history of collections, the history of science, and the broader social and cultural history of the long seventeenth century. 

Additional support for this project was provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Dr. Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The exhibition subsequently traveled to the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, where it was on view from June 23 to September 23, 2018.