A demonic creature has re-emerged from the shadows of a Joshua Reynolds painting after centuries in hiding. England’s National Trust found the creature under layers of varnish in “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort” (1789) during cleaning and conservation of the work timed with the British painter’s 300th birthday.
The work depicts the moment in Shakespeare’s “King Henry VI” (likely first performed in 1592) when the monarch’s great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, lies dying of disease.
“O! beat away the busy meddling fiend; That lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul; And from his bosom purge this black despair,” the king exclaims.
It appears that Reynolds took this “fiend” literally, detailing a wide-eyed, fanged creature creeping in the shadows behind Cardinal Beaufort’s deathbed.
The monster drew the ire of Reynold’s contemporary art critics, who took issue with the painter literalizing this element of Shakespeare’s story. A 1789 article in the Times said that although the “imp” doesn’t ruin the painting, “it does no credit to the judgment of the Painter.”
“We rather apprehend that some Fiend had been laying siege to Sir Joshua’s taste,” continues the scathing broadside. The same year, prominent landscape architect Humphry Repton wrote that Reynolds should have only included the monster if Shakespeare had listed it as a character in his play.
John Chu, the National Trust’s senior national curator for Pictures and Sculpture, explained in a statement to Hyperallergic that while it was “considered acceptable in literature to introduce the idea of a demon as something in the mind of a person, to include it visually in a painting gave it too physical a form.”
Though Reynolds’s contemporaries urged him to paint the demon out, the artist resisted.
Print seller John Boydell had commissioned Reynolds, who primarily crafted portraits, to create the work for his newly opened Shakespeare Gallery. The commercial venture, which only sold illustrations of Shakespeare scenes, then distributed engraver Caroline Watson’s copies of Reynolds’s painting in 1791.
After the artist died the following year, the Shakespeare Gallery issued a second print run that excluded the controversial character. In 1805, the Third Earl of Egremont at Petworth bought “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort,” and the family eventually gifted their art collection to the National Trust.
Although Reynolds chose not to paint out the demon, the figure quite literally disappeared into the shadows, and earlier conservation attempts seem to have ignored its existence entirely. Restorers added layers of varnish to the painting, complicating cleaning efforts that were already made difficult by the artist’s original hand.
“Reynolds is always difficult for conservators because of the experimental way he worked,” said National Trust’s Senior National Conservator for Paintings Becca Hellen. She explained that his use of dark brown waxy mediums to paint the shadows made that section of the work dry slowly, causing shrinkage. Hellen added that earlier restorers added multiple layers of paint, turning “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort” into “a mess of misinterpretation.” Now, Reynold’s painting is on display at the public Petworth House in West Sussex. The demon is in full view, just as the artist intended.