Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Paston Treasure

As promised, here's an oil painting which I believe Sir Thomas Browne may have viewed.

Among the many "honoured and worthy" Norfolk gentry whom Browne was acquainted with were the wealthy landowning family of the Pastons, Sir William Paston (1610-62) and Sir Robert Paston (1631-83) of Oxnead Hall, Buxton in Norfolk. It's entirely possible that Browne when visiting the Pastons, either socially or professionally as a medical doctor could have viewed the canvas known as The Paston Treasure. Commissioned by Sir Robert circa 1665, the large painting is no longer believed to be the work of the travelling Dutch master, Franciscus Gysbrech. It records the Paston's family treasures as owners of a- "world of curiosities and some very rich ones, as cabinets and juells".

The Paston Treasure depicts a black servant and a blonde girl holding a bloom of roses, a strombus shell, a silver-gilt flagon, a shell-flask and two nautilus cups. The painting also shows many musical instruments including a lute, bass viol and a cornet. The Paston Treasure is a good example of symbolism in Dutch and Flemish still-life painting. The theme of Vanitas and the passing of time are represented in the painting by an hour glass, a watch, a clock, and a guttering candle.The painting features artefacts which represent a microcosm of the known world in the mid-17th century, as hinted by the prominent position of a globe. These include - a packet of tobacco from America, a boy and parrot from Africa and a porcelain dish from Asia. Sculptures and gems, gold, silver and enamel, as well as natural history specimens, along with music instruments including a bass viol, sackbut, violin and a lute can also be seen.

The peaches, grapes and oranges, along with lobster, suggest a luxurious lifestyle. The young African servant boy is also an exotic addition to the picture. He is the earliest known portrait of an African in Norfolk by almost 200 years. The girl, is most likely Robert Paston's daughter Mary, who died of smallpox in 1676. The inclusion of parrot and monkey is suggestive of domesticated creatures possessing faculties imitative to humans, but in contrast, lacking in reason. Both are depicted as disruptive, the monkey as if jumping onto servant's shoulder, and parrot interrupting girl from her reading of song-book music.

The collection was sold shortly after the painting was finished because of the Paston's failing finances. The objects were to spread around the world again.

''The Paston Treasure'' functions as a work of art on several levels. Firstly, as a ''schatzkammer'' (cabinet of treasures) or ''Wunderkammer'' displaying the Paston family's wealth and learning. Secondly, as an example of the tradition of Dutch Golden Age Pronkstilleven painting, in which objects refer to the transience and emptiness of wealth and possessions, and the ultimate extinction and emptiness of earthly life. This thematic concern is developed further in a near comprehensive inventory of Vanitas symbols with its allusions to the fragility of life, the passing of time and the inevitability of death, represented here by ephemeral roses and fruit, a clock, hourglass and an extinguished candle.The nautilus shell behind the globe is in the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft and the flask held by the boy is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The silver gilt flagon, with a visible date-mark for 1597-8 is one of a pair in the Untermeyer Collection, New York and the silver nautilus cup with the seated stem figure is now at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

With its crowded inventory and moralistic symbolism, the Paston Treasure would have appealed to Browne's artistic sensibility. Indeed in his spiritual and artistic testament Religio Medici, Browne humorously confessed of his fondness for the visual arts thus-

I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse. (Religio Medici Part 2 paragraph 9)

A much brighter reproduction of the recently cleaned and restored canvas. A vast improvement and testimony to  restoring skills and expertise.

Postscript 2015

In his 2015 book on Sir Thomas Browne Hugh Aldersey-Williams discusses this painting, but does not state how or when he arrived at the idea that Browne possibly viewed it.

'Men are still content to plume themselves with other's feathers', as Browne phrases it.


teegee said...

Wonderful document, The Yaremouth Collection", unusually free of classical or purportedly classical objects. I'd like to think that Browne could look for hours, not at any old painting of a handsome horse, but at a handsome painting of a horse.
A comment like this, of course, may not be directly relevant to your post and therefore not to be approved.

Hydriotaphia said...

Thank you teegee for your comments which I perceive to be a combination of erudition, humour and wisdom acquired from longevity.