Fiend emerges from restored Joshua Reynolds painting

A demonic imp has re-emerged from a Joshua Reynolds painting after restorers removed layers of overpaint and discolored varnish. The large-scale painting (about seven feet high and five feet wide) in the collection of Petworth House and Park in West Sussex, is one of four works by Joshua Reynolds to be restored in honor of the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Commissioned in 1789 by the Shakespeare Gallery in London’s Pall Mall, the painting depicts the death of Cardinal Beaufort from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. In the play, Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and Henry VI’s great-uncle, is a Bad Guy who conspires with the Earl of Suffolk against the Good Guy Duke of Gloucester. Suffolk’s schemes include spurring Gloucester’s wife to summon the evil spirit Asmath to foretell the fates of the major players before the “false fiend” is dispatched back “to darkness and the burning lake.”

Two acts later, Beaufort is writhing on his deathbed, tortured by his guilt over Gloucester’s murder. King Henry asks that God take pity on Beaufort and “beat away the busy meddling fiend/That lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul….”

Reynolds shows the cardinal in his death throes, clutching the bedding, while Henry raises his hand to God. Warwick and Salisbury watch in the background. The fiend, monstrous with long, sharp teeth and deformed facial bone structure, lurks behind Beaufort’s pillow.

Reynolds’ choice to paint a literal devil into the scene caused much controversy at the time. Critics took umbrage at the presence of a character not present in the play itself. The king’s comment referred to an inner demon torturing the dying man, not an actual devil cackling over his head. People tried to get Reynolds to paint it out, and later prints of the work did remove the imp, but Reynolds, by then at the end of his career and less than three years from the end of his life, could not be talked out of his vision by critical opinion.

The painting was sold along with the Shakespeare Gallery’s whole collection in 1805. It was acquired by the 3rd Earl of Egremont and has been at Petworth ever since. Today the estate is managed by the National Trust and the painting was conserved by its experts. The cleaning and removal of previous interventions and thick layers of yellow varnish took six months. When it was completed, the fiend, long since swallowed by the darkening shadows, reappeared, as did the details of the facial expressions and Reynold’s original color palette.

Becca Hellen, the Trust’s Senior National Conservator for paintings, said the amount of overpaint was considerable: “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. The painting was lined, with an extra layer of canvas applied to the back, in the 19th century and at that time too much heat would have been applied.

“The area with the fiend was especially difficult. Because it is in the shadows, it was painted with earth browns and dark colours which would always dry more slowly, causing shrinkage effects. 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.”

Becca Hellen continued: “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.”