7 secrets of the Paston Treasure
PUBLISHED: 12:25 10 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:25 10 August 2018
Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art & Curator of Decorative Art, shares 7 fabulous discoveries from the Paston Treasure that can now be seen at Norwich Castle
Discoveries of The Paston Treasure project
Researching The Paston Treasure for five years has been a constant source of amazement as each new discovery has come to light. When we started, we knew five of the objects from the painting were real. There were also inventories, and letters, and other Paston artefacts dotted around, but we knew there was so much more to find out. With the Yale Center for British Art we put together a team, and began to explore. These are some of the things we discovered:
Professor Jonathan Wainwright, a musicologist from York University, identified the song the little girl in the painting is singing. The song is about death, written by a Cambridge-based composer, Robert Ramsey, about 1630. We had it recorded for the very first time for the exhibition.
Professor Wainwright examined the shell cup from Delft. The stem is formed from two satyrs. One holds a tiny song-book. High magnification shows, amazingly, that there is a real song engraved on the page. It is a popular sixteenth century love song by a Dutch composer, Clemens Non Papa. We believe that Clement Paston commissioned this shell cup, the entrepreneurial soldier and sailor who built Oxnead Hall in the 1570s/80s on the back of the money he made by capturing foreign ships and ransoming wealthy passengers. Did Clement choose this composer as a reference to his own name?
Robert Paston was an alchemist. For twenty years he tried to make a version of the Philosopher’s Stone known as the ‘red elixir’. Like the Stone, this would turn base metals to gold and cure all ills. One exciting find of the project was Robert’s own notebook in which he recorded his recipes. Some of these are alchemical, others medicinal. The book is in America and not in the exhibition, but we have some of Robert’s more unusual medical suggestions. How about a paste of maggots grown from rotting bees to cure baldness, or pigeon-dung mixed with vinegar for gout?
Robert Paston’s eldest daughter, Margaret, is probably the little girl in the painting. We found out that she was a chip off the old block when it came to science and medicine. In the Wellcome Collection in London we discovered a manuscript of her recipes. She married an Italian diplomat, and moved to Venice. There she maintained her own scientific and alchemical workshop where she conducted experiments. She seems to have corresponded with leading scientific figures, and to have carried on her work throughout her life.
A painting was discovered in a private collection just a few months ago. It was identified only because it shows the coat of arms of William Paston, and those of his second wife, Margaret Hewitt. It can be dated to 1640-1641. It depicts a magnificent Italian-style house, with William and Margaret themselves standing in the foreground. The house does not correspond to a real building, but has similarities to Oxnead Hall and is thought to represent the ideal fashionable house William would have liked to build for himself on the site. Unfortunately the Civil War started and he never got the chance, so the painting is the only record of this ambition. It is on display here in Norwich for the very first time.
William Paston was a great traveller. He almost certainly bought most of the magnificent items we now know were in the Paston collection. He visited Italy, and met Ferdinand de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. A famous art collector, Ferdinand showed William his galleries and allowed him to visit the exclusive workshops where he commissioned artworks for his personal use and those of his friends. He either gave, or allowed William to commission, a sumptuous marble table inlaid with semi-precious stones. This table, which contains the Paston arms, survives but has been in a private collection for many years, its whereabouts unknown. We tracked it down, and the owners have lent it for the exhibition.
The Yale Center for British Art commissioned new analysis of The Paston Treasure painting. Macro XRF-scanning allowed a specialist team of conservation scientists from Catania University, Sicily, to identify every chemical element within all layers of the painting. This told us exactly which pigments the artist used. We discovered the artist had used more than twenty, a huge number for the time. They also told us about the top right hand corner of the picture. This was painted three times in quick succession: first showing a silver dish, then a lady in red, then the clock we see today. Why was this? The answer is complex and, though we have some theories, still puzzling. This was a project which asked as many questions as it answered!
Come and find out more: see the exhibition, listen to the music and watch the film.