‘Devil-like figure’ lost in time uncovered in 230-year-old painting following restoration

A “devil-like figure” featured in a painting by a renowned artist that’s more than 230 years old has been rediscovered after a recent restoration.

The discovery came as a result of conservation work done by the National Trust on a painting of a Shakespearean scene by 18th Century artist Joshua Reynolds, who died in 1792.

Referred to by the Trust as a “fiend,” an evil spirit or demon, the painted figure proved to be controversial at the time.

The figure, covered by layers of paint and varnish, was included in Reynolds’ painting based on a Shakespearean death scene, which was titled “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort.” Specifically, the painting shows a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 2” with the king witnessing the death of Cardinal Beaufort.

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Joshua Reynolds painting before (left) and after restoration

Before and after conservation, the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA shows “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort (1377-1447)” from William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Part II, Act III, Scene iii. It is on display at Petworth House, West Sussex. (National Trust)

The figure, which included fangs and a sinister expression, was painted at the head of the bed, just above the dying Beaufort’s head.

“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,” said John Chu, the Trust’s senior national curator for pictures and sculpture. 

“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. 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.”

The painting by Reynolds, first revealed at the Shakespeare Gallery in 1789, is one of four that the National Trust has conserved to mark the 300th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

closeup on Joshua Reynolds painting

After recent conservation, a detail showing the fiend in the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA of “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort (1377-1447)” from William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Part II, Act III, Scene iii. (National Trust)

The artwork by Reynolds was created at the end of his career as a commercial commission for the Shakespeare Gallery in London’s Pall Mall, which paid 500 guineas for the painting, according to the Trust.

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“The gallery also created prints for sale and export, something Britain was dominant in at the time. Engraver Caroline Watson produced the plates for prints of the Reynolds painting, the first copies showing the fiend, although a second print run in 1792, after the artist’s death, showed an attempt to remove it from the printing plate,” the Trust noted.

restored Sir Joshua Reynolds painting, right, before conservation work, left

Before and after conservation, the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA shows “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort (1377-1447)” from William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Part II, Act III, Scene iii. (National Trust)

“It perhaps isn’t a surprise that it had receded so far into the shadows of the picture. It appears it was misunderstood by early conservators,” Chu said of the figure’s disappearance. “Some decades after the painting was done, that area seems to have deteriorated into small islands of paint and become less clear due to the constituent parts of the paint. Degradation of successive varnish layers over the years made it even less visible.”

After being examined by painting experts at the National Trust, it became clear that the fiend in the artwork had been painted over by several people and included six layers of varnish.

“Reynolds is always difficult for conservators because of the experimental way he worked, often introducing unusual materials in his paint medium, striving for the effects he wanted to achieve,” said Becca Hellen, the Trust’s senior national conservator for paintings. 

“The area with the fiend was especially difficult. Because it is in the shadows, it was painted with earth browns and dark colors which would always dry more slowly, causing shrinkage effects. … With the layers added by early restorers, it had become a mess of misinterpretation and multiple layers of paints.

Joshua Reynolds portrait

Oil painting on canvas, “Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792)” by Angelica Kauffman RA (1741-1807) National Trust Images 18737.  (National Trust Images/Rob Matheson)

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“This is a large painting, and we wanted to ensure that it still represented what Reynolds originally painted, which included allowing the fiend to be uncovered through removing all the non-original darkened varnishes and ensuring it still correctly showed its form and perspective with the work we did.”

The painting is now back on display at Petworth House in West Sussex after treatment.