Once upon a time a little Italian peasant girl, who had become an artists’ model in Paris, was sold by her father for two wash-leather bags of gold to an eccentric English-born aristocrat.

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Years passed and the beautiful Italian met and married a Norfolk landowner and doctor. They raised a family near Aylsham. To her regret, she never returned to the mountains and sunshine of her native land and died in 1939, the year war broke out.

It may sound like the plot of a sad fairy story, romantic novella, or perhaps a colourful sequel to Downton Abbey - but every word is true.

And visitors to next month’s Aylsham Festival will be able to discover more about the poignant life of Maria Pasqua at an exhibition in the town’s heritage centre.

Maria was born in 1856 in Velletri, south of Rome, the fourth child of a feckless but charming father, Domenico, and his wife Carolina.

Her good-looking parents worked as artists’ models in Rome through the winter, living in the city’s slums, but returned to the mountains for the summer.

Maria would accompany her father while he sat for artists and her own striking features inevitably caught their attention.

At the age of six, Maria and her father crossed the Alps, mostly on foot, from Rome to Paris where she became a successful model in an age which relished romantic paintings of beautiful children.

Maria was painted by many distinguished artists who exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon. One portrait, by Hébert, was bought by Baron James de Rothschild. Another, entitled A Greek Captive, by Henriette Browne, is on display at our National Gallery.

The little girl was much feted and admired, attracting the attention of the English-born widow of a French aristocrat, Helena, Comtesse de Noailles.

In an extraordinary deal, the countess, “Madame”, bought Maria from her father who stipulated that she should never be painted again and must be raised as a Catholic.

Separated from her family, her culture and homeland, little Maria began a strange new life under the wing of a highly-eccentric, though essentially kind-hearted, woman with bizarre beliefs on matters of health and hygiene.

Madame was convinced that the breath of cattle was beneficial to health and had a cow tethered at every ground-floor window so that its wholesome breath would penetrate each room.

And when Maria was briefly sent to a convent school she had to sit alone, studying maths and grammar according to Madame’s system, wearing a specially-designed Grecian tunic to allow air circulation around her body.

At the age of 21, while staying with friends of Madame in Bournemouth, Maria met the recently-widowed Philip Candler Shepheard, 20 years her senior, whose farming family came from Erpingham, near Aylsham, although he had been practising as a doctor in Gayton, west Norfolk.

The unlikely pair married and Philip later bought Abbots Hall estate, near Aylsham, where they raised their four children. One son died in childhood, another, Philip, was killed at Gallipolli in the first world war and his name is recorded on Aylsham’s war memorial.

Son Samuel never married and lived alone in Abbots Hall until his death in 1973, two weeks after a fire at his home which broke out during a stay in hospital. He had been well-known throughout Norfolk as an active master of otterhounds.

The Shepheard family and Roman Catholicism in Aylsham

Philip Candler Shepheard met Maria Pasqua, his future wife, while socialising in Catholic circles.

His conversion to the faith came about indirectly because of his sister Suzanna’s marital disharmony.

Her husband, John Mack, of Paston Hall, notoriously disliked the Church of Rome and to tease him Suzanna would read Catholic literature and distribute pamphlets. She succeeded in converting herself, two sisters, her brother Philip and another brother, Samuel, who was Vicar of Calthorpe at the time.

When the sisters moved to Aylsham in old age they had a small chapel built in their garden dedicated to St John of the Cross. It was later enlarged and became Aylsham’s Roman Catholic church, celebrating its centenary in 1999.

Maria’s only daughter, Helena - named after Madame - had five children, including a daughter born in Sheringham in 1925, now Magdalen Goffin, who wrote an account of her grandmother’s extraordinary life, Maria Pasqua, recently reprinted in paperback by Faber.

● The exhibition, at Aylsham Heritage Centre, in the grounds of St Michael’s Church, is based on the book written by Mrs Goffin, who now lives in Kent. It can be seen from June 13 to June 17 and will include family photos and artefacts including children’s stories written by Maria. For more information on the festival visit: www.aylshamfestival.co.uk

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