On February 22, 1663, Sir William Paston (1610–1663) of Oxnead Hall died, leaving a sizeable estate and a collection of objets d’art of considerable value. In his will, reworked the previous November, William stipulated that his collection was to be carefully divided between his second wife, Margaret Paston née Hewitt (d. 1669), and his eldest son, Robert (1631–1683). Bad blood between Margaret and her stepson Robert prompted William to devise a special plan so that a dispute over his possessions would not erupt after his death. To that end, his will specified that Margaret divide the collection into “two equal parts” and that Robert choose which half to keep for himself.
Remarkably, Margaret’s share appears never to have left the Paston residence at Oxnead, where Robert continued his father’s practice of showing off the family’s prized possessions. Lady Bedingfeld, visiting the house in July 1675, remarked that it was “lik to a terrestriall paradise,” and Robert himself called it “the sweetest place in the world.” In 1671, the Pastons were honored for their loyalty to the crown with a visit from the king and queen as they toured through Norfolk. Though the king had kind words for Robert (calling him a “friend”) and later bestowed upon him the titles of viscount and earl, these rewards were not enough to staunch the hemorrhaging of their finances. Before the end of the century, the family was forced to begin selling off their collection of drawings.
The Paston Treasure, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Center, was painted around the time of William’s death and records the ambition and status of a family that by the seventeenth century was the richest of all the Norfolk gentry. The cabinet of curiosities at Oxnead, immortalized in the painting, demonstrates a carefully crafted taste for naturalia (natural objects) and artificialia (man-made objects) from around the globe: mother-of-pearl from India, a strombus shell from the Caribbean, and flagons and tankards from the leading goldsmiths of northern Europe. For William, whose collecting was at once visionary and obsessive, the Paston motto could not have been more appropriate: “De mieulx je pense en mieulx” (“I think of better and better things”).
Written by Edward Town, Head of Collections Information and Access, and Assistant Curator of Early Modern Art, and Kyle Mancuso
For more information about the exhibition, visit The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World.
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