The Paston Treasure, Norwich Castle Museum, till 2 October 2018
I love going to an exhibition, seeing beautiful and intriguing objects, uncovering new histories, and in the process making the acquaintance of yet another remarkable woman.
This is exactly what happened when I went to the exhibition based round the painting entitled The Paston Treasure, one of the most extraordinary pictures in the Norwich Castle Museum’s collection. The exhibition is the culmination of the creative imagination and painstaking research of Dr Francesca Vanke and a team on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting was commissioned some time in the 17th century to showcase the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy Norfolk Paston family, and the starting point of the exhibition is to explore the fate of the treasures and their significance in their time.
The fate of the family is well known: even as their wealth and influence reached its peak, the wheel of fortune was beginning to drag them down, and within around fifty years the family was bankrupt and their goods dispersed through local sales.
Yet the painting itself calls to mind Churchill’s quote about Russia: ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’ A casual glance prompts immediate questions: why is the little girl so pale? Why does it look so flat? Aren’t the colours a bit weird? Isn’t there something a bit strange about the proportions? Scientific scrutiny reveals another conundrum: why was the top-right hand corner painted over twice in rapid succession? The clock that appears there now was originally a large silver salver; the salver itself was then replaced by the figure of a woman, who in her turn vanished behind the clock.
Last, but certainly not least – who painted it? ‘The Master of the Paston Treasure’ has no name, and only one other painting unmistakeably by his hand has ever been uncovered.
All these riddles have answers of varying degrees of certainty. The strange colours can be explained by the instability of the pigments used. The odd perspective and proportions arise from the fact that the artist would never have had the whole scene in front of him at once: each of the precious objects would have been brought in one by one. The obliterated salver and disappearing woman remain the subject of speculation: was the salver just too dominant, or was it the subject of a disputed legacy? Was the figure of the woman a symbolic one, intended to balance the other figures, or was she the unpopular stepmother, whom the son ordered to be painted over once his father, who commissioned the painting, had died.
The identity of the little girl has also given rise to speculation. Once thought to be Mary Paston, who died at the age of 12, current research suggests she may be Margaret Paston, Mary’s eldest sister, who was a favourite of her grandfather William Paston. He left her £4000 in his will, and she made full use of the unprecedented freedom this gave her. Against her parents’ will, she chose her own husband, Venetian diplomat Girolamo Alberti di Conti, who was (horrors!) a Catholic. She moved to Italy in 1675 and never returned.
For me one of the most exhilarating moments in this rich and absorbing exhibition was to see the densely written notebook in which she had recorded – in Italian – her pharmacological and alchemical research, carried out at her workshop in Venice.
There are countless other highlights in the exhibition, all of them the fruits of exceptional scholarship: the early Grand Tour features prominently, as does the notion of the cabinet of curiosities. Look up and you will see a crocodile floating over your head; listen and you will hear the first-ever recording of the song in the little girl’s score. Magic.