“The Death of Cardinal Beaufort,” a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicting a scene from Shakespeare’s play “Henry VI, Part 2,” stirred controversy when it was first shown in 1789, because of a demon that lurked in its shadows.
The choice to include the fanged, sinister-looking figure challenged audiences’ expectations of what was then suitable in painting. At the time, one critic from The Times of London suggested that “some fiend had been laying siege to Sir Joshua’s taste.” Another said the demon’s “ludicrous meanness destroys the terror which is the soul of the scene.”
The creature was eventually hidden under layers of paint and varnish, creating mystery around the painting until this year, when the demon resurfaced after a restoration project by the National Trust, an English conservation charity.
It took six months for the restorer, Sophie Reddington, to uncover the demon and bring the rest of the painting to life, said Emily Knight, the property curator at Petworth House and Park in West Sussex, England, where the work is on display.
The painting, which measures roughly 5 feet by 7 feet, captures a scene from the series of history plays by Shakespeare set during the life of King Henry VI, who succeeded to the thrones of England and France before the age of 1. In the second of the three plays in the series, Henry VI witnesses the death of Cardinal Beaufort, and the scene, in Act 3, Scene 3, is depicted in the painting.
In the play, the king begs God for a peaceful death for the cardinal, his great-uncle, and declares, “O! beat away the busy meddling fiend.”
When the painting was shown at the Shakespeare Gallery in 1789, Reynolds’s literal depiction of the demon upset some viewers who thought it should not have been included because it was not a character in the Shakespeare play and “it just wasn’t appropriate to depict something that is sort of otherworldly in this physical way,” Dr. Knight said.
“You could do that in literature and poetry, you could do that by words, but it wasn’t appropriate in imagery,” she said.
John Chu, the National Trust’s senior national curator for pictures and sculpture, said in a news release that the painting had generated more controversy than any other work on display.
“There were even people who argued that it should have been painted out,” Mr. Chu said, referring to the demon, “although records of conversations with the artist show he resisted such attempts to alter the work.”
The Times of London’s review of the painting in May 1789 said the demon “does no credit to the judgment of the painter.”
The next year, a monthly literary periodical, The Analytical Review, said that the demon had been criticized because it “divides our attention, and enfeebles the importance of the chief character; but above all, because its ludicrous meanness destroys the terror which is the soul of the scene.”
The painting had its defenders. Among them was Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who wrote in 1791 that, by including the fiend, the painting “endeavored to enlarge the sphere of pictorial language” but had been “depreciated” by the “cold criticism of the day.”
The fiend eventually disappeared as layers of paint and varnish were added in early restoration efforts. This latest restoration project by the National Trust was timed to coincide with Reynolds’s 300th birthday.
Dr. Knight said that the restoration made everything in the painting more clear, including the expressions on the faces of the men in the background and the cardinal’s fist clenching the sheet.
Mark Aronson, deputy director and chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art, said that the work of Reynolds, the leading English portrait painter of the 18th century, was “notoriously difficult” to restore because of his techniques.
“Reynolds set himself up early in the career to be very experimental, both pictorially and with materials,” Mr. Aronson said. “And some of that added resins and oils and waxes have made restoring some of his works tricky.”
Mr. Aronson said Reynolds was known to paint some portraits with carmine, which can be prepared as a deep, rich red pigment and can fade “quite quickly.”
“Their skin tones went blue very rapidly and so there were these jokes about his paintings dying before the sitters did,” Mr. Aronson said.
The painting of the cardinal dates from toward the end of Reynolds’ career (he died in 1792) and was commissioned by the Shakespeare Gallery in London, which paid 500 guineas for the painting. In 1805, the gallery’s collection was sold and the third Earl of Egremont bought the painting for the equivalent today of 38,000 pounds, or about $46,759. The painting was passed down through the family before it was donated to the National Trust, which put it back on display after the restoration, in July.
Mr. Aronson said that the restoration was very “satisfying.”
“Looking at the before and after pictures,” he said, “it’s just in my mind a remarkable transition from removing these very thick layers of yellow varnish and revealing a much more vibrant, accurate painting.”