For this painting, the devil really is in the details.
According to a press release from the National Trust, a devilish figure was uncovered during a recent restoration of a Joshua Reynolds painting, “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort,” which dates back over 230 years.
Currently on display at the Petworth House in West Sussex, England, the piece portrays a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 2,” in which the king witnesses the death of Cardinal Beaufort.
“O! beat away the busy meddling fiend,” the King said in the play while begging God for his uncle to have a peaceful death.
Apparently, the “meddling fiend” managed to make it into the painting.
“Conservators Find a ‘Monstrous Figure’ Hidden in an 18th-Century Joshua Reynolds Painting:”
The artwork, titled The Death of Cardinal Beaufort (1789), depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.https://t.co/E8qRSlhUDo #gothic pic.twitter.com/8ataHp7N9j
— Mark Rees (@reviewwales) November 14, 2023
The “devil-like figure,” who sports a sinister smile, can be seen above the head of Cardinal Beaufort, lurking in the shadows, Fox News reported.
Reynolds’ inclusion of the fiend was seen as controversial by his contemporaries.
As the National Trust’s Senior National Curator for Pictures and Sculpture John Chu noted, “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.”
Chu explained 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.”
That is not to say that the painting received only disdain.
Eighteenth century poet Erasmus Darwin supported the inclusion of the demon, asking, “Why should not painting, as well as poetry, express itself in a metaphor or in indistinct allegory?”
Reynolds created the painting in 1789, towards the end of his career, as a commission for Shakespeare Gallery in London. Prints of the painting were created by the gallery to be sold. The first copies showed the fiend, but after Reynolds death, a second print in 1792 removed it from the painting, according to the National Trust.
“Degradation of successive varnish layers over the years made [the fiend] even less visible,” Chu explained of the real painting.
The National Trust’s painting experts concluded that, in addition to the six layers of varnish, multiple people had painted over the piece.
Restoration of the area with the fiend was “especially difficult” said Becca Hellen, the Trust’s Senior National conservator for paintings.
“Because [the fiend] is in the shadows, it was painted with earth browns and dark colors which would always dry more slowly,” she said. Coupled with the many people who worked on the painting over the years, the artwork became a “mess of misinterpretation and multiple layers of paint.”
The painting is one of four that the National Trust conserved to mark the 300th anniversary of Reynolds’ birth.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.