Art restorers at the National Trust were in for a disturbing surprise when they uncovered a hidden demonic figure lurking in the background of a historic painting in its collection. Previously banished to the shadowy depths of the piece, the restored ghoul now adds a whole new context that's been subject to past controversy.
While I appreciate the hard work that went into the restoration, I don't think I'm ever going to unsee that creepy little guy in the background – maybe he should've stayed in the shadows. (If you're looking to kickstart your next project, check out our collection of the best oil paints to get you set for success).
The demon creature, flatteringly named the 'fiend', is a white-faced abomination with fangs and eerie bulging eyes. It turns out it's not just an odd hidden Easter egg but a controversial amalgamation of the line “O! beat away the busy meddling fiend” – a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2.
To avoid burdening you with too much thespian drivel, the painting depicts a scene where the King witnesses the death of Cardinal Beaufort, wishing him a peaceful (non-demonic) end. Created by Joshua Reynolds in 1789, the piece was contentious as "It didn’t fit in with some of the artistic rules of the times to have a poetic figure of speech represented so literally in this monstrous figure," according to a statement from the Trust’s Senior National Curator for Pictures and Sculpture, John Chu.
As a result, the picture has been subject to many different restorations across the years, with previous artists attempting to disguise the lurking fiend. The Trust's conservator team had to work tirelessly through several previous overpainting efforts and six layers of varnish before the creepy character was unveiled. "With the layers added by early restorers it had become a mess of misinterpretation and multiple layers of paints,” says Becca Hellen, the Trust’s Senior National Conservator for paintings.
I love the eerie quality of old paintings so it's a welcome spooky treat to see details like this emerging from historic artworks. If art is supposed to make you feel something then Reynold's painting is a resounding success – consider me well and truly terrified. The painting is now on display at the National Trust's Petworth House in West Sussex if you'd like to witness it in its full horrifying glory.