When Sir Joshua Reynolds painted The Death of Cardinal Beaufort in 1789, he included a demonic figure that became a controversial topic after it debuted. Reynolds could not have imagined the painting would elicit such a response. But it did. One critic sneered: “too ludicrous and puerile to escape censure.”
Over the years, the fiend slowly disappeared beneath layers of paint and varnish. However, the artwork has now been restored — with a complete view of the controversial fiend.
Becca Hellen, the National Trust’s Senior National Conservator for paintings, said: “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.”
Reynolds was inspired to create the art by a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. The play saw the titular king lamenting at his great uncle’s bedside, appealing to God to grant him a peaceful death.
Reynolds interpreted the scene literally as he painted The Death Of Cardinal Beaufort. When he revealed his creation at London’s Shakespeare Gallery in 1789, most people were shocked to see the demon.
Another critic wrote: “The Imp at the Cardinal’s bolster cannot spoil the picture, but 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 when he determined to literalize the idea.”
To some, the fiend was a poetic figure of speech. For it to be represented so literally in such a monstrous figure depicted by a painting was simply unacceptable. However, some did not mind the demon much, but most seemed to agree that it was an unneeded flourish.
While he lived, Reynolds resisted any alteration to the painting. However, after his passing, the very first print of the portrait, made in 1792, did not contain the fiend. It was “restored” over the years by different people who added at least six layers of varnish.
John Chu, Senior National Curator for Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust, said: “It perhaps isn’t a surprise that [the demon] had receded so far into the shadows of the picture.”
He continued: “It appears it was misunderstood by early conservators. 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.”
The painting, complete with Sir Joshua Reynolds’ demonic figure, has been revived. It is currently on display at Petworth House in West Sussex.