To borrow from Winston Churchill, "The Paston Treasure" is a puzzling peculiarity, enveloped in mystery. Measuring 8 feet by 5.4 feet, the painting (c. 1663) transports the viewer to the luxurious 17th-century milieu of the land-owning Paston family of Norfolk, England. Beautifully painted, with many precise details, it asserts the Pastons' wealth and prominence near their zenith, before the English Civil War and too-lavish spending took them down a peg.
It looks like an overstuffed jumble, replete with vessels, timepieces, musical instruments, animals, fruits, flowers and more, gathered from the West Indies, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Africa and the Americas, as well as Europe. But all these possessions—which would have been on display at the Pastons' seat, Oxnead Hall, or kept in a locked cabinet of curiosities known as the "best closet"—represent a "microcosm of the known world." That is the subtitle of the special exhibition anchored by the painting at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn.
Detail: Perfume flask, among other items.
From what artist and by whom? Those are two of the painting's mysteries. The artist, who scholars believe was an itinerant Dutchman, is unknown. He may have been hired by Sir William Paston (1610-1663), a globe-trotter of his day who added significantly to the family's extensive collections, which were begun by the mid-1500s, or by his eldest son, Sir Robert Paston (1631-1683). The painting may have been started during Sir William's lifetime but completed later—which may explain why the upper right corner was repainted twice. At first, a silver platter filled the space, but it was replaced—perhaps because ownership of the plate was contested—by a woman. Scholars conjecture that she may have been Sir William's second wife, not Sir Robert's mother. She's gone, too, the space filled with a clock and antlers, possibly by a second, less-skilled artist.
The artist moored the painting with 13 vessels that stretch across the picture—the "stars" of the work, in the words of Yale curator Nathan Flis, who co-organized the exhibition with Andrew Moore, former keeper of art and senior curator at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, which owns the painting.
Detail: Nautilus cups, tankard
Of the other vessels—including a German tankard, three Nautilus cups and a flask made of a turtle's carapace—perhaps none is so enchanting as the perfume flacon on the right. Its mother-of pearl sections were imported from India, then joined by silver-gilt cagework, embellished with chains, given a stopper adorned by a gilt shell and mounted in London. This blend of East and West probably alludes to the European fascination with the exotic East and the increasingly global culture of the 17th century. (Remarkably, the exhibit includes the actual flask, now owned by a British collector, along with four other objects depicted in the painting.)
Detail: Servant, tipped cups
Scholars believe that these selections, these placements were completely deliberate, which raises another question. The Pastons owned hundreds of objects; 11 existing inventories catalog jewelry, paintings, pietra dura objects, globes, tapestries, deer antlers, miniatures, books, musical scores, crocodiles—the list goes on. Why these?
There are only hints. Many objects have a nautical connection, possibly a link to Clement Paston (1515/23-1598), a sea captain who was one of the family's early collectors. Or perhaps, in tune with the vanitas theme, they cite the dangers of the sea—or the possibilities of journeys in an age of curiosity and scientific discovery.
Exquisite yet strange, "The Paston Treasure" has many more secrets to be revealed.