From Thursday, February 15 to Sunday, May 27, the Yale Center for British Art will show an exhibit on a mysterious work of art created by an unknown artist. “The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World” is centered about one enigmatic piece, “The Paston Treasure” ca. 1663, which celebrates the history of an English gentry family and the ways in which treasured possessions flaunt family history and defy time and distance.

The representative painting of interest, “The Paston Treasure,” is a cluttered canvas, covered in thirteen family heirlooms that follow their own light patterns and minimally affect each other in shadow. Clearly, the artist arranged and showcased each prized family heirloom in order to bring honor to their owners. Commissioned either by Sir William Paston, first Baronet, or his son Robert Paston, first Earl of Yarmouth, the painting flaunts the wealth and history of the Pastons, a gentry family hailing from Norfolk, and their Oxnead Hall estate. The painting defines category; the picture features elements of still life, portraiture, allegory, and animal painting. As the film featured in the exhibit, “The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other,” notes, the painting subscribes to the vanitas tradition, as it represents a “meditation on the fragility of life and the certainty of death.” The center of the painting features five drinking vessels made of shell, which the exhibit shows in their true form at its entrance in front of the masterpieces, and moves outwards towards portraiture from its core of clustered still lives.

The painting raises more questions than it answers for the viewer. Why does the composition resemble a collage? Why is the lobster at the focal point of the image pink and not red? Why did the artist use such delicate pigmentation? Why did the artist paint over a woman in the top right corner? Why did he obscure her face in a large silver dish before obscuring her image entirely? Was the young man featured on the left known to the family; was he a servant or slave? The rest of the exhibit explores these questions, curated to show images and objects that accompanied the painting at the Oxnead estate or are from a similar period.

The exhibit informs the viewer of the rise and decline of the Paston family — all the objects celebrated within the exhibit represent a bygone era. While the family of the Oxnead estate began to lose their wealth in the mid-eighteenth century, the curators inform us that bundles of letters known as the Paston Letters were salvaged, recounting the family’s rise to prominence throughout the fifteenth century. The Paston family accumulated wealth through marriage and careers in law, affording them copious fortune and connections.

I was most struck by the Paston family pedigree featured towards the back of the exhibit. The piece, “Paston Heraldic Roll” ca. 1573 (ink and gouache on vellum), shows Paston genealogy, which they claimed to date back to the Norman Conquest. The scroll features patterns of family crests that descend gracefully. The exhibit features maps not only of family history, but of geographical mapping: below the masterpiece, there are two maps from large books showing counties of England and various boundaries.

For contextual comparison, the exhibit offers “Still Life” ca. 1660 by Carstian Luyckx, claimed to be the most temporally and stylistically similar piece to “The Paston Treasure.” Luyckx’s picture arguably has a more spatially realistic composition than does “The Paston Treasure,” but “Still Life” and the exhibit’s masterpiece share many featured objects, such as the lobster and various silver treasures, in common. In addition, “A Young Artist Working in his Studio with a Still Life of Fruit, a Lute, a Violin, and a Globe” ca. 1665–70 by Godfrey Kneller provides a comparison to “The Paston Treasure.” The exhibit notes on an adjacent label: “If one of the many reflective surfaces in “The Paston Treasure” mirrored the artist at work, the scene might look something like this painting, recently identified as the work of the young Godfrey Kneller, and possibly a self-portrait.” This work of art sheds light on the artistic process behind the creation of a still life and represents the creation of an imagined scene which might not otherwise occur in real life.

In one room of the exhibit, portraits of nine kings of England painted by various artists hang on the walls, five on one side and four on the other, in order to contextualize the main masterpiece and the gentry family’s history.

My favorite object shown in the exhibit was “Nile Crocodile,” produced by an unknown taxidermist. The animal was displayed in the Great Hall of the Oxnead inventories, designed to bring the outside world into the small privileged world of the Paston family. In a similar flaunt of wealth, the family owned eighty tapestries, including the work of art featured at the YCBA exhibit, “Return of Sarah by the Egyptians,” depicting a scene from the Old Testament.

This exhibit celebrates a family’s history and the power of heirlooms to retain that history. To experience a diverse, eclectic, and fascinating collection of objects and works of art, make sure to visit the third floor of the YCBA before Sunday, May 28 to ask more questions of “The Paston Treasure” and appreciate its many companions.

Annie Nields annie.nields@yale.edu