The Paston Family: A Norfolk Story

12 September 2019

The Paston Family: A Norfolk Story

Originally published 2018

The story of the Paston family is Norfolk legend.

They were – and remain to this day – a family of visionaries who chanced everything to rise through the ranks from peasantry to an influential landowning family, in just two generations.

Title Image: The Paston Treasure detail, the little girl, unknown artist, Dutch School, c1663, oil on canvas. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, © Norfolk Museums Service 

Their story begins in the late 14th Century with Clement Paston (d. 1419) – a ‘peasant bondsman’, who took advantage of the chaos following the Black Death to buy up land and then send his son – William – to be educated in the law. The story comes to an end in 1732, when the family name dies with the last man to carry the Paston title: William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth. 

It was while William Paston was still alive, sometime in the 17th century, that the family commissioned a spectacular painting: The Paston Treasure. This luxurious, fascinating work is a collage of the family’s most prized, rare and important objects, and it has baffled art historians for years.

Take a look at the painting and it’s not hard to see why: on display is a wide variety of objects depicted together, seemingly with their own light rules, and none casting a shadow over another. Why is that lobster a faint grey pink and not red? Who are the boy and girl in the picture? ­­­­Why have x-rays of the painting revealed a change in composition after the painting was started?

From the 23rd of June until September, Norwich Castle will be holding an exhibition which showcases this painting along with several objects within it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this mysterious painting along with the precious historical artefacts which give it context, and discover the story of how one family left an indelible mark on Norfolk’s history.

The Paston Family

If you’re a history fan, you may have heard of The Paston Letters. These are a collection of correspondences between members of the Paston family, and the influential people they were acquainted with. They are an important insight into the life and times of a family on the rise, who battled plague, the siege of their homes and many, many legal battles.

It was John Paston senior  (1421–1466; Clement’s grandson), who took the ultimate gamble in the 15th Century, which saw the family rise through the ranks. During his many visits to London, John befriended the ailing Lord Fastolff, and eventually found himself as the knight’s lawyer. Somewhat suspiciously, John Paston was the main beneficiary of Fastolff’s will after he died, starting a feud between him and Fastolff’s ‘cheated’ heirs. The Paston family gained land and riches, but began years of disputes, both in and out of the courts. Sir John Snr died himself in 1466, leaving these unsettled matters in the hands of his wife and children.

Fast forward about 200 years and the Paston family were one of the most influential families in East Anglia. All but one of William Paston’s (1610-1663) children had died, leaving only his one son, Robert Paston (1631 – 1683). Robert was a member of parliament and fascinated by alchemy. He devoted much of his life to finding ‘the red elixir’ or Philosopher’s Stone, which would turn any base metal into pure gold. His father disapproved of his spending habits, and seemingly the two were on bad terms. It is not clear which one of them commissioned the painting.



Photo: The Paston Treasure, unknown artist, Dutch School, c1663, oil on canvas. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, © Norfolk Museums Service

The Painting

The luxuriousness of the Paston lifestyle is an obvious theme of The Paston Treature. Opulent objects such as perfume bottles, fine food and textiles glisten in lavish display. Look closer however, and spot motifs which might have been prophetic of the fortune that the Pastons would lose when Robert’s own son William dies – almost bankrupt almost 70 years later. Spot an extinguished candle and several timepieces which all symbolise death and the passing of time.

More mysterious still is the identity of the young girl in the portrait. Some sources believe that this is Mary – Robert’s granddaughter who died of smallpox while the painting was being finished. Others believe this girl to be Margaret, Robert’s daughter who – against her father’s wishes – eloped to Venice with the Italian ambassador, and started her own alchemist’s workshop there. As the exact date of the a painting is unknown, it is still a mystery as to who any of the individuals in the painting are.

The painting has undergone considerable technical analysis in an attempt to shed some light on its existence. Conventional x-ray examination undertaken between 2005 and 2006 revealed that under the diamond shaped clock in the upper right hand of the painting, the artist first incorporated a large silver dish which was then replaced with a portrait of an unidentified lady. There is a possibility that this is Robert’s father William’s second wife – Lady Margaret. Robert didn’t like her, so there is a possibility that he had her image painted over and replaced by a clock.

See for yourself

The bringing together of the paintings and objects are the results of years of work by the Yale Centre for British Art and Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery. The painting, along with several artefacts, was donated to the Castle in 1947 by the Buxton family, who are recorded to have purchased artefacts from one of the sales held at Oxnead Hall in the early eighteenth century, when the Pastons were rapidly heading for bankruptcy. Though the individual items from that sale were not listed, it seems most likely these objects were included and thus stayed in the Buxton family for more than 240 years.

This resplendent and mystical exhibition will be on display at Norwich Castle from June 23rd until September 23rd 2018. ‘The Paston Treasure’, comprising a total of more than 130 objects sourced from a host of national and international museums and private collections, provides an extraordinary glimpse into what was undisputedly one of the most splendid treasure houses to have ever existed in this country.

Entrance to the Castle is included in the standard Castle Admission Price:

Adult: £9.50; Concession*: £9.00; Child (4-18) £8.10
Family: 2 adults + all children:  £33.40; Family: 1 adult + all children:  £25.00
Twilight Ticket £2: available every day, one hour before closing and Monday to Friday, during school terms. Last entry 4.30pm.
Museums Pass holders, Friends of Norwich Museums and under 4s free.