A Family's Mania For Collecting: 'The Paston Treasure' At Yale Center For British Art

In November 1662, Sir William Paston knew that he was dying. He was worried that his eldest son, Robert, and his second wife, Margaret, would fight over the family’s collection of artworks and artifacts. So Paston added a sly element to his will: Upon his death, Margaret would decide how the collection should be split in half. And Robert would get the first pick at which half he wanted.

What kind of a collection was this, to cause that level of obsession in a dying man? And what kind of a man was Sir William, who would prioritize the disbursement of his possessions in the last days of his life? Yale Center for British Art answers those questions with “The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World.”

The exhibit at the New Haven museum is centered on a huge oil-on-canvas, “The Paston Treasure,” which was painted around 1663 by an unknown Dutch artist. The artwork, which looks as much like a collage as a painting, depicts a few dozen of the 200-plus items in the Paston collection: musical instruments, drinking cups made from gold and seashells, timepieces and other unusual, rare and precious items. A little white girl sits in the foreground, holding a book on which sits a bird. On the side, a black youth gazes at a monkey on his shoulder.

Head curator Andrew Moore called the painting “a marriage of naturalia and artificiality.”

Moore and the exhibit’s other curators have surrounded the painting with a vast array of sumptuous items once owned by the Pastons – including some seen in the painting – as well as items similar to other pieces the Pastons owned and items documenting the history of the family.

The Pastons’ collection, split in half in the settlement of Sir Williams’ will, was dispersed even more over the centuries as the family struggled financially. The Yale exhibit is the first time many of these items have been seen together since the collection was broken up.

The show creates a vivid portrait of a perpetually social-climbing brood: A family genealogy going all the way back to the Norman Conquest is most likely a genealogy of the noble houses the Pastons married into. “They would carefully curate their family history to show it to best advantage,” Moore says.

The exhibit also casts a keen eye on the family members’ fixation on conspicuous evidence of wealth and well-traveled sophistication. The Pastons’ status-seeking raised them from the peasantry to the nobility, with one Paston marrying the illegitimate daughter of King Charles II. But the clan’s extravagant fervor for accumulating expensive stuff – in addition to backing the losing side in the English Civil War – pushed them back downward, toward financial ruin and obscurity. The family line died out in the early 18th century and its manor, Oxnead Hall in Norfolk, became a ruin.

Edward Town, one of the organizing curators, says “The Paston Treasure” painting can be seen as a hybrid. “It fuses the genres. It’s not just an heirloom still life. It’s also a vanitas and a portrait,” Town says.

He added that the artwork primarily serves as a “restoration painting, showing the precious objects that have survived in your care,” which could be interpreted as a boastful show of one’s possessions.

Vanitas, a subgenre of still life most commonly associated with 16th- and 17th-century Dutch art, focuses on the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. Common vanitas items seen in the “Treasure” are timepieces, musical instruments and flowers. Ironically, the artwork created to celebrate the family’s social cachet also could be seen as a vanitas symbolizing the temporary nature of that prestige.

Sir William was not the first Paston to collect things, but he kicked the family’s treasure trove up a notch during a trip in his 20s to Europe, Egypt and Jerusalem. He purchased many items to document his travels: precious stones and metals; cups; ceramics; stoneware; jewelry; musical instruments; paintings and prints; and natural specimens including ostrich eggs, coconuts, even crocodiles from the Nile.

Sir William never seemed satisfied that he had bought enough. “He’s on the search for the one jewel he is not able to get his hands on,” says Nathan Flis, the center’s assistant curator of 17th-century paintings.

A poem dedicated to Paston worded it another way: “There is lacking in this treasure trove the one unique and everlasting gem. It is called eternal life.”

“THE PASTON TREASURE: MICROCOSM OF THE KNOWN WORLD” is at Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St. in New Haven, until May 27. ycba.yale.edu.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now