A restored painting by Sir Joshua Rynolds has revealed a fiendish secret: a hidden demon lurking in the shadows. The Times newspaper reports that the painting was first exhibited in 1789 and was sold to the 3rd Earl of Egremont of Petworth House, West Sussex, in 1805, where it has remained ever since.
The oil painting depicts a scene from the Shakespeare play Henry VI (Part 2), specifically Act 3, Scene iii, where the King is witnessing the death of his great uncle Cardinal Beaufort. During the scene, the King declares: “O, beat away the busy meddling fiend that lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul.”
This is a reference to the mental condition of the dying Cardinal who was afflicted by a raving madness. Reynolds has interpreted this statement literally by including a demonic face lurking behind the bed. However, the critics of the day were not impressed by this artistic licence.
The Times wrote in May 1789: “The Imp at the Cardinal’s bolster cannot spoil the Picture, but it does no credit to the judgement of the Painter. We rather apprehend that some Fiend had been laying siege to Sir Joshua’s taste, when he determined to literalise the idea. The license of Poetry is very different from that of Painting.”
The devilish image had faded from view over the years, although experts are unsure how this could have happened. One theory is that the muted dark colours Reynolds used to paint the demon could have dried up and shrunk over time. It may even have been deliberately obscured by those who objected to the gothic nature of the painting.
The National Trust decided to carry out conservation work on the painting to mark the 300th anniversary of the artist’s birth, and during the process, the evil spirit reemerged.
Becca Hellen, the Trust’s senior national conservator for paintings, commented: “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.”
She added: “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.”
The painting was originally created as a commission for the Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, London. It was a departure from the usual style of the artist, who is more well known as a portraitist.
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