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Description: The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World
~In the posthumously published tract Musæum Clausum, or, Bibliotheca Abscondita (1684), the physician Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich (1605–1682) made an inventory of objects in an imaginary collection: “Remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures & Rarities of Several Kinds, Scarce or Never Seen by Any Man Now Living”....
PublisherYale Center for British Art
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Directors’ Foreword
In the posthumously published tract Musæum Clausum, or, Bibliotheca Abscondita (1684), the physician Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich (1605–1682) made an inventory of objects in an imaginary collection: “Remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures & Rarities of Several Kinds, Scarce or Never Seen by Any Man Now Living”. These lost objects range from the improbable—“A Sub Marine Herbal, describing the several Vegetables found on the Rocks, Hills, Valleys, Meadows at the bottom of the Sea”— to the ridiculous: “Batrachomyomachia, or the Homerican Battel between Frogs and Mice, neatly described upon the Chizel Bone of a large Pike’s Jaw”. The far-fetched nature of these missing objects spells a commentary on what Browne perceived to be the frivolity of the seventeenth-century collecting craze, as well as a warning about more obscure forms of learning. By making reference to objects that will never be rediscovered because they do not exist, Browne reminds us that there are just some things we can never know.
Browne was an important collector in his own right, and, no doubt, he saw first-hand the great rarities that were displayed by his neighbours, the Pastons, in their “best closett” at Oxnead Hall. Over the course of his long life, Browne was a friend of and physician to both Sir William Paston (1610–1663) and his son Sir Robert (1631–1683). It is not hard to imagine him admiring the painting now known as The Paston Treasure when it was completed, or even contributing to the conversations that informed its making. Browne’s literary ruminations, and his subtle plays on words, recall the intricacies of the painting and the nuances of interpretation that it provokes.
Through its generous contents, The Paston Treasure reveals much about the world that made it, while at the same time refusing to give up all of its secrets. The spirit of Browne’s message in Musæum Clausum has thus imbued the scholarship of the publication in hand, and the exhibition it accompanies. Both seek to explicate this elusive work of art, along with the collection—a microcosm of the known world, now mostly lost—that the painting represents. Tantalizingly, there are some things that we may never know about The Paston Treasure, not least the identity of its painter.
The Paston Treasure has lived at the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (Norwich Castle Museum), now part of the Norfolk Museums Service, since 1947 when it was gifted by Maud Isabel Buxton. She was a descendant of Captain John Buxton, who purchased the painting from the Pastons in 1709, when the family had fallen on hard times. For much of its recent history, The Paston Treasure has been an important part of curatorial life for Andrew Moore, former Keeper of Art at Norwich and Programme Director of the Attingham Summer School. It was Andrew who set this project’s wheels in motion when he proposed that the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and Norwich Castle Museum might undertake it in partnership. He recognized that the study of this unusual and important work of art and the lost collection it represents would unfold in myriad dynamic ways, potentially involving an international cast of scholars from a broad range of disciplines. The number of perspectives that have been brought to bear on the project, providing new insights about the painting, the collection, the Pastons, and the wider world they occupied across the centuries, is astounding.
The collaboration between the YCBA and Norwich Castle Museum has unfolded beautifully, thanks to Andrew’s dedication and enthusiasm, and that of his excellent successor, Francesca Vanke (the present Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art at Norwich). At the YCBA, the project has been managed admirably by its organizing curator, Nathan Flis, Head of Exhibitions and Publications and Assistant Curator of Seventeenth-Century Paintings, and by its co-organizing curator, Edward Town, Head of Collections Information and Access and Assistant Curator of Early Modern Art. They have been joined in this endeavour by Jessica David, Senior Conservator of Paintings, and by Elisabeth Fairman and Sarah Welcome, Chief Curator and Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, respectively.
The splendour of the exhibition—at both the YCBA and Norwich—has been the result not only of the hard work and dedication of the international curatorial team but also of the generosity of more than fifty lenders on both sides of the Atlantic. We are grateful to the many directors, curators, registrars, and other staff members at our lending institutions, and to the many private lenders—including the surviving descendants of the Paston family, Sir Henry and Lady Mary Paston-Bedingfeld of Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, who helped to make several important loans possible and offered invaluable advice at various stages of planning. At our own institutions, we are immensely fortunate to count on incredibly talented exhibition planning teams, including our registrars, art handlers, and designers, as well as Stephen Saitas Designs.
One of the most exciting initiatives of the project has been the recent campaign of technical analysis, which has shed new light on the making of The Paston Treasure, as attested to by this publication. In April 2016, building upon the conservation and analysis that they undertook on the painting from 2005 to 2008 at Tate Britain and the Hamilton Kerr Institute (University of Cambridge), Jessica David and Spike Bucklow, Senior Research Scientist at Hamilton Kerr, teamed with Francesco Paolo Romano, Research Scientist, and Claudia Caliri, Postdoctoral Researcher, from the Laboratorio di Analisi Non Distruttive (LANDIS) at the University of Catania, Sicily, to reinvestigate the painting. Warmly hosted by Francesca Vanke and her colleagues at Norwich, and generously supported by the YCBA, this international team subjected The Paston Treasure to a state-of-the-art noninvasive analytical tool, a macro-X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scanner, the machine volunteered for the purpose by LANDIS. The scanner has revealed the physical construction and elemental composition of the painting, which at the time of writing was the largest work of art ever to have been examined using this technique. In 2017, Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage acquired its own MA-XRF machine, and the first painting to be investigated was Monkeys and Parrots, the only other known work by the Master of The Paston Treasure (cat. 3 in this publication), an equally mysterious painting that came to light in the course of research.
While planning for both the exhibition and the publication, two workshops were held at Norwich Castle Museum, one in April 2015 and the other in November 2016. These programmes were cohosted by Norwich Castle Museum, the YCBA, and the YCBA’s sister institution, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London. We are indebted to the Dr Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for funding these crucial gatherings, which brought together on one occasion or the other most of the more than forty contributors to this rich tome. We were privileged to spend one of the days during the second workshop at Oxnead Hall, where the current owners, Beverley and David Aspinall, were our gracious hosts.
Where the production of this beautiful book is concerned, we are indebted to the Publications team at the YCBA, to the designers at Miko McGinty Inc., and to our partners at Yale University Press, London. Last but certainly not least, we are deeply appreciative of the generosity of the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, which underwrote the cost of this publication in its entirety. We extend special thanks to the foundation’s chair, Thomas Cook, for his great enthusiasm for the project.
Amy Meyers, Director
Yale Center for British Art
Steve Miller, Director
Norfolk Museum Service
Directors’ Foreword
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