Devoted readers (ho ho) will recall that one of the things I was NOT going to do after retirement was to miss exhibitions, or to arrive panting on the last day. Since the retirement has turned out not to be absolute after all, I am still missing things, and nothing (recently) more infuriatingly than the recent show at Norwich (after a time at the Yale Centre for British Art). However, I did get a double consolation prize in the form of two recent talks in Cambridge by Dr Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute (the easel paintings conservation centre of the Fitzwilliam Museum) who recently conserved the Paston Treasure, uncovering several unexpected features during the process.
So, what is the Paston Treasure? It is this painting (artist unknown), given to Norwich Castle Museum in 1947 by its then owner. It was probably painted in the early 1660s, and displays a small but carefully chosen selection of the Pastons’ famous cabinet of curiosities (in their case, more like a whole house than a cabinet). Dr Bucklow’s researches have revealed that the items on display were in fact altered several times by over-painting.
For me, as – I guess – for most people, the Pastons are the medieval family whose surviving letters (a selection of which are published in the Oxford World Classics) give great insights into the lives of a well-to-do (but not aristocratic) Norfolk family during the fifteenth century. The publishing history of the letters from the mid eighteenth century onwards, including a compilation by Francis Blomefield (1705–52; clergyman and antiquarian whose estate later descended to the clergyman and naturalist Leonard Jenyns), and a six-volume edition by James Gairdner (1828–1912), is tortuous, but well summarised in the ODNB.
The last of the Pastons, William Paston, second earl of Yarmouth, died in 1732, bankrupt, and it was the disposal of the remains of his estate for the benefit of his creditors (who received a mere 11 shillings in the pound) that brought the letters to light. He illustrated the extraordinary tendency of the Pastons to be at the wrong place or hold the wrong convictions at the wrong time …
Returning to the Paston Treasure, we ignore the sixteenth century, except for Sir William Paston (1528–1610), who became sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1565–6 and was knighted in 1578. He began the tradition of hospitality at Oxnead Hall, built by his uncle Clement Paston, into which he moved in 1597, and founded and endowed a grammar school in North Walsham, Norfolk, which survives today as Paston College. (Alumni included Horatio Nelson.) Sir William also built the enormous Oxnead tithe barn (using timber and stone from a nearby demolished abbey), which is now a protected location for the rare barbastrelle bat.
At his death in 1610, he left a complicated will, which led to problems. His son Christopher was considered insane, so he made his grandson Edmund (who had married the forceful Katherine Knyvett in 1603), his heir, but put the entire estate into a trust from which Edmund could draw £800 a year for maintenance. Katherine was concerned that this would not give adequate provision for her two sons (the older of whom, another William, was born in the year of his great-grandfather’s death). Unusually, she took to the law on her husband’s behalf (he being ‘exceedinge sickly’), and lived in London so that she could pursue the case. Katherine’s son William married another Katherine, they had a son and heir, Robert, born in 1631, and then it was the Civil War.
The next Sir William was not a strong Royalist, but he did find it prudent to leave the country in the late 1640s (hence the likelihood of this portrait being done in the Netherlands).
His estates were sequestered by the Commonwealth, and though he eventually got the land back, it had declined in value. But another problem was expenditure vs income: Sir William and Robert were both avid collectors – of almost everything.
Sir William had done a Grand Tour which unusually ventured as far as Egypt and the Holy Land. He brought home masses of Stuff, and Oxnead became famous not only for its hospitality but for its contents and the cultural elite who thronged there. Items had to be sold by auction to make ends meet, but the real disaster struck because of the obsessive loyalty of Robert to Charles II, whose birthday (29 May) he shared (though he was a year younger). He had met the exiled king in Paris, and impulsively offered £10,000 for the cause, which his furious father felt honour bound to pay, by selling off estates.
They both may have hoped that they would be rewarded at the Restoration (Sir William died in 1663), but even after Sir Robert moved in Parliament in 1664 that the king should be granted £2.5 million for supply, and it happened (to general astonishment), he did not get as much in return as he had hoped. In 1666 he was given a customs farm which did not prove very profitable; his son William was married in 1672 to Charlotte Howard, one of the king’s illegitimate daughters; and he was made Viscount Yarmouth in 1673 (possibly as a result of the marriage) and earl of Yarmouth in 1679 – but maintaining this exalted status as his income declined proved difficult.
Robert died in 1683, and was succeeded by his son William, second earl of Yarmouth. He made the unfortunate decision to convert to Catholicism in 1687, and though he re-converted in 1689, he refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary (in spite of periods in gaol) until 1696. Although he could then take his seat in the Lords, his fortune continued to decline. When he died on Christmas day 1732, all his potential heirs had pre-deceased him, and he was bankrupt, the Treasures amassed and memorialised by his father and grandfather dispersed: ‘after the death of this Earl, who left his estates to pay his debts, this agreeable seat, with the park, gardens, &c. soon run into decay, the greatest part of the house was pulled down, the materials sold, only a part of it left for a farmer to inhabit’, as Blomefield describes it in his edition of the letters.
The Oxnead estate was purchased in 1735 (with prize money) by Admiral Sir George Anson, who partly restored the house, which is now (what else?) a wedding venue. But the picture remains as a kind of vanitas, with its intriguing glimpse into an extraordinary collection and its chilling reminder of the vagaries of family and fate.