Halloween might be over, but a demon continues to lurk at Petworth House in West Sussex, England. Conservators recently discovered the malignant spirit in the shadows of an 18th-century painting by Joshua Reynolds as they prepared for a show honoring the artist’s 300th birthday.
The work shows a moment from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 in which the titular king witnesses his great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, dying of disease. Henry declares, “O, beat away the busy meddling fiend / that lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul, / and from his bosom purge this black despair!”
Conservators have found that Reynolds chose to render this “fiend” literally—in the form of a ghoulish face just above the dying man’s pillow. This artistic choice was met with widespread disapproval. “One critic described it as ‘too ludicrous and puerile to escape censure,’ while another said it ‘does no credit to the judgment of the painter,’” writes BBC News’ Ian Youngs.
When the painting first went on display in 1789 at the Shakespeare Gallery, it proved more controversial than any other work at the show, as John Chu, senior national curator for pictures and sculpture at the National Trust, says in a statement. Reynolds went against the artistic conventions of the time by giving a physical, monstrous form to Shakespeare’s figure of speech.
“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,” Chu adds. “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.”
Though the demon appeared in early prints of the painting, a second print run after the artist’s death showed an attempt to remove it from the printing plate, according to the National Trust.
Over time, the imp vanished from the original, too. “The figure quite literally disappeared into the shadows, and earlier conservation attempts seem to have ignored its existence entirely,” writes Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie. The dark colors Reynolds used for the creature dried more slowly than other colors, especially when combined with the artist’s resinous and waxy mediums and pigments, causing shrinkage. Conservators also found that many hands had overpainted the work, and six layers of varnish had been applied.
Restoring such a painting requires diligence, as Becca Hellen, the National Trust’s senior national conservator for paintings, says in the statement.
“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,” Hellen says.
Now, visitors to Petworth will be able to see the work as Reynolds created it.
“The average visitor coming to see it would never really have known that there was anything there,” Emily Knight, the property curator at Petworth, tells the London Times’ Jack Blackburn. “The painting’s completely transformed, not only with the fiend but the tonal balance of the painting as a whole.”