It’s time to take a break from the hurly-burly of politics–both early modern and contemporary–and reflect on an enigmatic painting currently hanging at the Norwich Castle Museum: ‘The Paston Treasure’ (1668 x 2475 mm), painted around 1665 by an unknown artist (detail pictured above). The painting was commissioned by the Paston family in Norfolk, and is accompanied by an exhibition featuring a collection of items in the Paston collection.
This thoughtful piece by Alice Spawls in the London Review of Books discusses some of the bizarre features of the painting and summarises the colourful history of the Pastons–which includes lawsuits and armed conflicts over inherited lands during the tumultuous fifteenth century in England, prosperity and prestige under the Tudors, a fortune built on piracy by Clement Paston in the sixteenth century, and William Paston’s 1638 Grand Tour of Europe, Turkey, and Egypt which was the source of the many luxury items and curiosities depicted in ‘The Paston Treasure’. It was William or his son Robert who commissioned the painting. Thereafter, the family seems to have gone into decline, perhaps foreshadowed by the symbols of vanitas in the painting: clock, sand-timer, blown-out candle. Pictorially, the family (still-) lived up to its name as having ‘Past on’ (in contrast to their parallel-universe anagrammatical counterparts, who sought to cover up their disreputable history of serving bootleg liquor, or ‘Taps on’, by naming themselves ‘No past’).
As Spawls writes, the ‘flowers, fruit, lobster and swathe of red curtain are common places of Dutch still life; its large and luxurious arrangement puts it in the tradition of pronkstilleven, or “ostentatious still lifes”.’ The luxury goods also include a lute, a globe, a trumpet, cups made with nautilus shells, and a young black servant. Given the context of early modern imperialism, the string instrument may well have been ‘stolen lute’; though the desire to bring the world’s curiosities to England indicates that other than William, the Pastons may have led a largely ‘shell-tered’ existence. Now, Spawls notes that ‘whether the Pastons had a black servant is unrecorded’ and downplays possible racist undertones: ‘the British were on the brink of formalising the slave trade, but Africa had many other, richer associations, and black skin didn’t yet designate a different “race”‘. It is true that concepts of race were undeveloped at the time as compared with the eighteenth century, though the inclusion of the black servant as a luxury commodity (a common feature of the genre) should surely give us pause–as Beth Hawco, a recent King’s graduate, argued in her excellent EMSP Honour’s Thesis on black servants in Dutch pronkstilleven.
The oddest thing about ‘The Paston Treasure’, however, is the physically impossible placement of both human figures (the servant and Robert Paston’s daughter) and objects, as if it were a seventeenth-century version of the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album. As Spawls writes, ‘in order to display its magnificent cargo, the table slopes upwards drastically. The space of the tabletop is a fantasy: the shell cups all seem to touch one another – recession without depth – and cast no shadow. The girl’s chair is lodged in the table; its angle to the chair with the lute all wrong. What does the globe stand on?…Everywhere the objects meet, they fail: the lute can’t possibly glance off the globe and the clock and touch the picture frame. This gives the painting a peculiarly flat aspect; it looks more like a collage.’ Spawls argues that there is evidence that the painter knew what he was doing, based on the perspectival rendering of the grapes. This suggests that the painting was intentionally fragmented and unstable–or should we say, ‘un-table’? Such instability and asymmetry could be characterised as constituting a whole new artistic genre: pronkstill-uneven.
Early Modern Times will return on Oct. 20-21. Happy Thanksgiving, and do check out the Babel Launch Party to pick up a copy of the Early Modern Students’ Society journal Babel, on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 pm in the Senior Common Room!
Director, Early Modern Unstable Life Studies Program