A demon from a 1789 painting has bared its long, sharp fangs once again following a restoration effort that removed the layers of paint and varnish that shrouded the fiend for years.
“The Death of Cardinal Beaufort,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds, depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2 in which the king bids farewell to his dying great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort. In the original painting, a devilish-looking creature peers out from the dark shadows above the head of the dying cardinal.
In the scene from the third act, the king pleads with god to grant his uncle a peaceful ending. “O! beat away the busy meddling fiend that lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul,” the king says. “And from his bosom purge this black despair.”
Some critics of the painting, however, believed that busy meddling fiend should have remained imaginary.
“It didn’t fit in with some of the artistic rules of the times to have a poetic figure of speech represented so literally in this monstrous figure,” explained John Chu, senior national curator for pictures and sculpture for the U.K.’s National Trust, in a statement. “When it was first shown at the Shakespeare Gallery in 1789 it generated more controversy than any other work on show.”
In the restored oil on canvas, the demonic figure is clearly visible, big black irises filling its wide eyes as it leans in toward the cardinal’s pillow. Nothing about the little fellow looks friendly.
The National Trust, which protects historical sites and objects, led the effort to restore the original painting to mark the artist’s 300th birthday. The work, which measures about 7 feet by 5 feet, is now back on display for public viewing in the art collection at Petworth, a sprawling 17th century country home in West Sussex where it had been for years prior to being removed for restoration.
The newly unveiled devil marks just the latest restoration project to shed light on old art mysteries. Technology recently helped reveal how Leonardo daVinci painted “Mona Lisa.” Tech also helped undress a female nude that had been painted over for centuries. Sir Joshua Reynolds was best known as an 18th century English portraitist, but he was also interested in historic themes, as paintings like “The Cardinal of Beaufort” demonstrate. Henry VI, Part 2, the second in a trilogy, is believed to have been written in 1591, during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England.
It was considered acceptable in Reynolds’ time for literature to introduce demons and monsters that existed in people’s minds, but some thought visually representing them made them all too real, according to Chu. The Shakespeare Gallery created prints for sale, and the engraver who produced the print plates for a second run in 1792 removed the demon.
“There were even people who argued that it should have been painted out, although records of conversations with the artist show he resisted such attempts to alter the work,” Chu said.
Evidence shows the artist lost that battle. When National Trust’s restoration experts examined the work, they found significant evidence of overpaint, as well as six layers of garnish.
Restoring the fiend proved especially challenging, according to Becca Hellen, the National Trust’s senior national conservator for paintings.
“Because it is in the shadows, it was painted with earth browns and dark colors which would always dry more slowly, causing shrinkage effects,” Hellen said in a statement. “With Reynolds’ resinous and waxy mediums and pigments not aiding drying of the paint it was no surprise that the area of the fiend was a challenge. With the layers added by early restorers it had become a mess of misinterpretation and multiple layers of paints.”
The fiend caused a stir when it first reared its not-so-pretty head near the cardinal’s.
“The imp at the cardinal’s bolster cannot spoil the picture, but it does no credit to the judgement of the painter,” an art critic wrote in The Times in 1789, going on to snark that “we rather apprehend that some fiend had been laying siege to Sir Joshua’s taste, when he determined to literalize the idea.”
But not everyone decried the demon.
“A truly great modern painter lately endeavored to enlarge the sphere of pictorial language by putting a demon behind the pillow of a wicked man on his death bed,” another critic wrote in 1791. “Which unfortunately for the scientific part of painting, the cold criticism of the present day has depreciated.”