Margaret Paston

Dr Francesca Vanke, Senior Curator and Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

This little girl appears in one of our most important paintings: The Paston Treasure. Painted around 1662-3 at Oxnead Hall, Norfolk, it contains many mysteries, but the girl is likely to represent one of two sisters, Mary Paston or her elder sister Margaret. Recent research strongly suggests that the most probable candidate is Margaret Paston (1652-c.1723).

In this picture Margaret looks rather doll-like. We can see little of her character beyond her beautiful but stiff dress, and the many props – songbook, parrot and instruments – which surround her. However, appearances do not tell the whole story! Margaret had a strong personality, considerable intellect, and an interesting later history. Her grandfather, William Paston, who probably commissioned this painting, left her £4000 in his will as a dowry. This was a vast sum for the time. At a period when most girls’ marriages were arranged entirely by their parents, this financial independence allowed Margaret to do something very unusual indeed: to choose her own husband. She chose a high-ranking Venetian diplomat, Girolamo Alberti di Conti. Her parents, Robert and Rebecca Paston, disapproved: Girolamo was an Italian Catholic, and they wanted an English nobleman for their daughter, the kind of man who would elevate the family’s social status. But Margaret married Girolamo in London in 1673, leaving England for good in 1675. Her parents seem never truly to have forgiven her, nor to have seen her again.

Oxnead Hall, the Paston family home in Norfolk

In 2018, Michael Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at London University, discovered a document in the Wellcome Library. It was a notebook written in Italian by Margaret in the 1680s, listing numerous pharmacological and alchemical recipes. Robert Paston was a keen alchemist, who had his own laboratory, but from the notebook it becomes clear that Margaret maintained her own alchemical workshop in Venice. Robert is mentioned in her book, along with his various scientific experiments undertaken at ‘casa Paston’, which must mean Oxnead Hall. Since Margaret left Norfolk aged only twenty-one and had almost no later contact, one can only conclude that she had assisted her father in his laboratory, and was thus involved with science herself from a young age.

Margaret practised alchemy in her laboratory in Venice, having inherited the interest from her father

Further research is needed to learn more about Margaret’s life in Venice, but this fascinating discovery adds greatly to our knowledge. Few seventeenth century women would have done what Margaret did, or have had the opportunity. (We should also remember that a woman not from the upper classes who practised alchemy and medicine at this date was more likely to be accused of witchcraft than anything else, but that’s another story!) Nonetheless, in Women’s History Month, it does make us think about just how much we do not know about the women of the past. The further back we go in time, the less information we are likely to have beyond formal, posed portraits. Evidence on a par with Margaret’s notebook is very rare, but now that we have it, it adds hugely to our understanding of this one woman, bringing her to life across four centuries.

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