The peculiar life & times of Flaming June: “The most wonderful painting in existence”

flaming_june_sketch_moving_1250

I am going to tell you a story. How one of the world’s most famous paintings came into existence, got lost, was rediscovered but unloved (the frame was thought more valuable than the painting) and rose again to become “The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere”. It is the peculiar journey of a world renown piece of Pre-Raphaelite art – that will take us from Clapham Common to Puerto Rico, carefully avoiding Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lefty granny. And remarkably, this painting, Flaming June is back in this country, in the London house where she was painted (at least until 2 April 2017).

flaming_june_sketch_9eFlaming June is a delightful shock of colour, form and design. It’s subject is a supple, sensual female form curled up for a nap. Yet if she is asleep, somehow there is a lot of coiled energy there. It’s a painting leaving the viewer with many questions.

The artist, Frederic Leighton, an intensely private man, was a believer in “art for art’s sake” – leaving him free from the restrictions of narrative, religious or political purpose, and leaving us free to focus mostly on the aesthetics.

It is known that Leighton was inspired in some of his pieces by Michelangelo’s sculpture, Night, made for the Medici chapel in Florence (1526–1531).

flaming-june_

You may see some resemblance in this sculpture to our painting.

In his poem L’Idéal, the French Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) refers to this same statue. Here again you may detect a further inspiration for our painting.

L’Idéal (The Ideal)

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who calmly contort, reclining in a strange pose
Your charms molded by the mouths of Titans!

Night, which you see sleeping in such sweet attitudes
was carved in this stone by an Angel
and because she sleeps, she has life.:
Wake her, if you don’t believe it, and she will speak to you.

My sleep is dear to me, and more dear this being of stone,
as long as the agony and shame last.
Not to see, not to hear [or feel] is for me the best fortune.;
So do not wake me! Speak softly.

(Translation.)

An early sketch exists of the painting Flaming June by Frederic Leighton.
An early sketch of the painting ‘Flaming June’.

Who is the artist’s model in Flaming June?

Mary Lloyd, posing.
Mary Lloyd

A question almost every viewer has is “Who is the artist’s model?” Alas, we don’t know for sure. Mary Lloyd started posing for Leighton in the 1890s, so she is a possibility.

Lloyd (posing, left) was the daughter of a prosperous country squire, but had fallen on hard times. This was a period when modelling wasn’t thought respectable, so she couldn’t let her activities be widely known. But when the Sunday Express interviewed Mary Lloyd in 1933 she admitted to having posed for Leighton, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown. It is thought she died in poverty.

Another candidate is Dorothy Dene (born Ada Alice Pullen). She was an English stage actress and another Pre-Raphaelite muse.

Some have suggested that the model is Leighton’s muse, the actress Dorothy Dene. He paid for her elocution lessons and their relationship apparently inspired George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Guardian 16/12/16.

Frederic Leighton was a lifelong bachelor, but when he died he left £5,000 to Dorothy Dene (his Eliza Doolittle?) and a further £5,000 to the Dene Trust established to support Dorothy’s siblings. A huge sum at the time, particularly for Dorothy who had begun life as a poor child from the East End of London. A further £10,000 went to the Royal Academy, besides other bequests.

If Dorothy Dene is the model in Flaming June it is yet another feather in her cap, we have only just discovered that she is also the subject of another world famous painting, Edward Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs (Tate Britain). We know this because previously unknown letters that identify the model have recently appeared at Christie’s auction house. [As reported by the Telegraph on 19/11/16]

A third alternative life model is Lena Dene. Lena was the younger sister of Dorothy Dene (Leighton’s principal muse). Lena would have been aged 22 when the painting was produced.

Flaming June was completed at speed by an artist at the top of his form, despite the fact that he was dying from heart disease. Leighton had a well developed technique and had been composing the work in his mind over many years. He showed off his painting in his studio on 7 April 1895, one of his 6 submissions to the Royal Academy.


A Peculiar journey: From Clapham Common to Puerto Rico: but avoiding Andrew Lloyd Webber’s grandmother

flaming_june_8

The first sale of Flaming June was to William Luson Thomas, owner of The Graphic (a popular weekly art periodical).

Luson was struck with the painting’s many qualities and bought it for just over £1,000, featuring it on the front of his magazine in Christmas 1886.

The painting was then sold to a wealthy widow (I don’t have the name), who lent the painting to the prestigious Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (UK).

Around the turn of the century, art collector Samuel Courtauld called it, “The most wonderful painting in existence … a gorgeous piece of flamboyance.” The Epoch Times 29/07/15

Then the trail becomes a little unclear. In 1930 it is believed the painting was returned to Leighton’s house, before vanishing without trace for three decades.

In 1962 a builder was working on a house on Clapham Common, London. He removed some panelling over a chimney piece and found the artwork still in it’s substantial tabernacle frame. Excitedly he took his new find to a local art shop and was (reportedly) delighted with the £60 he received.

A low point for Victoriana – Nice frame, shame about the picture

It seems the art shop the builder had sold it to, bought the painting largely for the enormous frame. The painting itself was removed and sat at the back of the shop on Battersea Rise.

It is at this point that Andrew Lloyd Webber enters the stage as a would-be hero, but soon exits our story, not pursued by a bear but, rather, thwarted by his grandmother.

The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose own collecting helped revive serious interest in the art of the period, never forgave his grandmother for refusing to lend him £50 to buy it when he saw it soon afterwards in a shop on the Kings Road. “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat,” she told him. Guardian 20/06/16

Now we must return to that little art shop in Clapham. Eventually a part-time hairdresser/art dealer bought the painting and sold Flaming June on to another art dealer, Jeremy Mass, for less than £1,000 .

Mass art gallery

Jeremy Mass then attempted unsuccessfully to sell the painting to various museums. The obvious question is why was he unsuccessful? To understand that you need to appreciate the prevailing climate at the time. In early 1960s Britain, Victorian style was not in favour (to put it mildly). It was almost as if things Victorian were now an embarrassment to a post-empire nation determined to reinvent itself as a modern utility-driven Britain. The year that Flaming June reappeared (1962) was the same year that the remarkable Euston railway station was demolished, a deed controversial at the time and now notorious in UK architectural history.

Euston Railway station - then and now

Euston railway station was  demolished on the signature of the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1894-1986), a Victorian himself. The demolition of Euston served as a catalyst for the work of The Victorian Society (founded in 1957).

[The painting] ‘… disappeared for decades, until it was mysteriously rediscovered and resuscitated at a most unlikely time, in 1962 when Andy Warhol was painting Campbell soup cans, when Victorian art was stigmatized for being prudish and sentimental.’ The Epoch Times 29/07/15

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s website touches on the topic of attitudes to late Victorian art (and by now I feel I know his granny quite well):

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Granny was something of a rebel, albeit with a strange cause. She claimed to be a founder of one of life’s greater contradictions, the short-lived Christian Communist Party. To her, even more than to some of her contemporaries, Victorian art and architecture represented the apotheosis of a set of values she detested. Tractarian architecture was the world of bells, smells and mumbo jumbo. She was all for Dr Leslie Weatherhead and the free church. She idolised Viscount Stansgate, who was eventually to reinvent himself as Tony Benn. It must have been deeply distressing that her grandson should wax passionate about the artistic fruits of the Victorian era.

Most of her generation distrusted Victorian art, even going so far as to nickname Waterhouse’s masterpiece The Lady of Shalott ‘After the May Ball’. The consequence was that in my grandmothers lifetime his paintings could scarcely be given away. There is a famous story that a certain Alma-Tadema painting was found chucked in a builder’s skip. Its owner had kept the frame, thinking it more valuable. In the early 1960s it seemed to me that only the ‘sentimental schlocky musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein’ (as my school music-master described them) were considered by the politically correct tastemakers of the day to be of such dire artistic merit. Needless to say, I loved both Rodgers and Hammerstein and Victoriana. andrewlloydwebber.com

So much for the times in which Flaming June was rediscovered. Returning to our story. Finally, art dealer Jeremy Mass had some luck. Flaming June was bought by the millionaire industrialist, politician and collector, Luis A Ferré (see picture below) for his purpose-built Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.

Industrialist, politician and collector, Luis A Ferré.

Apparently when Ferré first saw Flaming June he was utterly mesmerised. It was love at first sight. I cannot find a strong source for this but, supposedly, Ferré’s son recounted years later that his father spent a sleepless night worried that, in the final stages of the transaction, Mr Maas would retract his offer and sell the painting to another buyer before the deal was consummated.

For just £2,000 Ferré bought the painting and it was shipped off to his fabulous art gallery in Puerto Rico, where it went on to gain a superstar status as “The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere”.

Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.

Flaming June has now been reunited with an oil sketch that Leighton painted to determine the painting’s remarkable colour scheme.

Flaming June painting test colour version


It is worth mentioning that Luis A Ferré bought another stunning piece of English art in April 1963. This other painting has sometimes been called “that most English of all paintings” or “The one that got away”.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

An enormous painting (24 feet long). The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881–1898), was the final and greatest work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. So I would argue that it was “two that got away”. Britain’s loss is Puerto Rico’s gain.

Bamber Gascoigne at West Horsley Place.

The story that I am telling could have been a lot longer, there is much that I have left out. However, I don’t feel I can resist mentioning the unlikely role that the 80 year old Bamber Gascoigne (author and University Challenge BBC quiz host) had to play. In 2014, he unexpectedly inherited West Horsley Place from his 99-year-old aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe. This was a stately home dating back to the 11th century and the country retreat of a glamorous aristocratic family.

The Duchess appears to have been a remarkable lady who lived an interesting life. Legend has it that West Horsley Place was once home to Sir Walter Raleigh’s head.

Fortunately it was not that illustrious gentleman’s body part that was found by Bamber Gascoigne, but something much more alluring. Behind a mysterious door in a room that had been shut up for decades, a pencil and chalk drawing of a woman’s head was discovered: the central study for Flaming June – lost for more than a century.


And so Flaming June was created, her stock rose, slumped to obscurity and then surged again. Today the famous want to be associated with her when, not so long ago, they would have been embarrassed to love her. Actually, that’s being unkind on Jimmy Page, rock muscian. He talks about his long obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites on The Tate website.

Flaming June returns to London

If you want to see the iconic and lovely Flaming June yourself, she is briefly returning to the studio where she was created from 4 November 2016 to 2 April 2017.

Frederic Leighton's studio

There is a special exhibition at Leighton House Museum, Holland Park, West London. ‘Flaming June: The Making of an Icon’.

The exhibition assembles all 6 works submitted by Frederic Leighton to the Royal Academy for 1895, including Flaming June, as photographed in his studio (left), so provides fascinating context.

Leighton House Museum, Holland Park, West London.

This is a rare visit to the UK from “The most wonderful painting in existence”.

The Puerto Rico institution allows its star exhibit to travel “rarely and only in extraordinary circumstances”, says the director Alejandra Peña in a statement. The Art Newspaper 03/11/16

Leighton House is one of London’s hidden gems and a delicious visit destination for Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts and those interested in late Victorian art.


The Pre-Raphaelites on Pinterest (The Long Victorian)

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