Flaming June

She lies there curled up asleep like a comfortable feline, radiant in the golden light of a late summer afternoon. Luscious drapery enfolds her perfect body, so delicate that the sinews of her curves can almost be touched. Behind her an incandescent Mediterranean Sea glistens under the torrid sun’s rays. To the right an oleander flower teases with both beauty and death for in its blossom is a deadly poison.


A strange immortality indeed. But where are we? Not in a forgotten Hesperidean garden or by a secret cove on a distant Hellenic coast. Instead, we are at 12 Holland Park Road in Frederick, Lord Leighton’s house and studio and where ‘Flaming June’ was created.


(The artist’s studio with ‘Flaming June’ on the right, as displayed during Princess Alexandra’s visit in 1895. All except one of the paintings have been collected together for the present exhibition)

As artists such as Van Gogh were ignored during their lifetime so for so long after his death in 1895 one of the Victorian era’s most notable painters was neglected – such is the price of fame during one’s lifetime.


(Frederick, Lord Leighton)

Indeed, ‘Flaming June’ – for such is the title of this ravishing picture – was forgotten, even lost, for much of the last century. It was found by accident, boxed up in a fireplace, by some workmen renovating a house in 1962. Placed into auction it failed to achieve the reserve price of £100. A young Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the first to realise the immense charm and importance of Victorian painting after its disregard, spotted June but could not persuade his granma to lend him fifty quid to buy her. ‘I don’t want any Victorian junk in my house’, she retorted. Finally, someone from a poor Caribbean island bought it for the newly-founded national gallery. It was Louis Ferre who was enraptured by the picture and bought it for £2,000. It now rests as pride of place in Puerto Rico’s gallery at Ponce.

We were stop-over passengers in Puerto Rico in 2004 on our way to Antigua but unfortunately did not have time to go and see the picture. It was, therefore, a fantastic opportunity to pay our first-time respects to June at Leighton House where she will reside until April 2nd 2017.

‘Flaming June’, for which one of the most beautiful girl in Britain, Dorothy Dene, served as model, Leighton’s favourite (perhaps there was more to this professional relationship but, alas we’ll never know since the artist was quite reticent about his life and never kept a diary) is probably the artist’s masterpiece and was his last completed painting. Indeed, when the funeral procession of the only painter ever elected to the peerage  (ironically just one day before he died) passed in front of the Graphic’s office there, in its front window, was flaming June, her immortal image shining on the painter who had given her artistic breath.

Many years previously we had actually seen Flaming June in the flesh. In a highly memorable scenic re-evocation of social life in this gorgeous mansion and focussing particularly on the relationship between Frederick Leighton and Richard Burton the explorer, (played by my friend David Reid) a latter-day Dorothy Ede posed in precisely the same way with similar aureate drapery, auburn hair and semi-sleeping eyes. (To this day, David regards this as perhaps his most enjoyable acting experience).

As we stepped outside into the overcast Kensington streetscape I wondered how someone who had studied at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti (founded by Cosimo I de Medici in 1563 and frequented by such greats as Michelangelo and Bronzino) could have been so passed over just fifty years ago…

Anyone who cares about Victorian, indeed, great art, and finds themselves in London must make a beeline to Leighton House for, in addition to the artist’s wonderful apotheosis of Dorothy Dene, it has one of the most extraordinary rooms anywhere: the Arab Hall with its dazzling tiles. So, two journeys can be saved by going to 12 Holland Park Road now – one to Puerto Rico and the other to a palace in the Arabian Peninsula!


(The Arab Hall at Leighton House)

Finally, there is an important connection between Frederick, Lord Leighton and Bagni di Lucca. Elisabeth Barrett Browning, whose holiday residence has been so meticulously restored in Bagni by Laura Poggi and her husband, had her tomb in Florence’s English cemetery designed by Leighton.


(Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb, designed by Lord Leighton, in Florence’s English cemetery)


Brihadishwara Temple

If there is one place in south India that has to visited above all else then it is Tanjore with its Bridaseshwara temple. This building is the supreme glory of the Chola dynasty and represents religious architecture as its celestial summit.

I’d visited this temple when young but when I approached it yesterday after so many years it seemed born anew; reaching the precincts in the late afternoon when the declining sun’s rays began to tinge the building with a glorious honey-dew colour will remain with me forever as a truly exstatic moment of my life.


In 2010 the temple celebrated its thousandth year of existence with an extensive cultural programme of dance and song.Although we missed that we arrived just at the right time for the temple doors to be opened and to admit the devotees, who had gathered from all parts of India, into the grihasta or sanctum sanctorum of this Shivaite shrine originally constructed for the performance of rituals to confirm the divine right of the chola kings.


We passed down a crepuscular passageway marked by sculptures of gods and daemons before receiving ashes and a gold coloured chord from the chief brahmin priest. I felt particularly awed by the fact that the ceremonies performed at this shrine were older than those undertaken at ancient Greek temples and, unlike those, had been continuously observed into the present times. Truly a living history!

Tanjore also has a somewhat unkempt royal palace which houses, among other treasures, a precious collection of chola bronzes up to the standard of those in the Chennai museum.


Tanjore and its great temple was the unforgettable climax of our exploration of India’s Hindu heartland of Tamilnad – a visit to cherish until we too join the mysterious domain of the gods…..


20170219_14390720170219_14202520170219_141059Chennai, or Madras as it was called until 1996, is often avoided by those who use the capital of Tamilnadu, as just a commencement point for their exploration of India. Less full of highlights than the other three major cities of the subcontinent: Mumbai, Kalkotta and Delhi, Chennai is definately worth looking at and deserves a longer stay.

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The Greatest Temple in India

20170218_10462620170218_101229120170218_11001320170218_11134120170218_10233720170218_09032620170218_091729Tiruchirappali, formerly  known by the British as Trichinopoly, is a city of close to a million inhabitants which lies near the geographical centre of Tamilnadu. It has a long and distinguished history dating from the third century BC when it was part of the Chola empire. Conquered in turn by the Pandyas, tbe Pallavas, the Nayaks it eventually became  part of the British empire in 1801 when they drove the French out. Not as frequented as some other great temple centres of India it remains a stunning place to visit principally because of two main sights.

The first is the rock temple built on top of a precipitious boulder 273 feet high rising above the centre of a maze of narrow streets. The temple has shrines to Ganesh and Parvati among several others. We arrived at the foot of the giant rock by nine am and were able to climb the thousand steps to the top without too much discomfort from the heat. The views at the summit were spectacular but what truly grabbed our attention were the great eagles gliding effortlessy in the thermal laden air.

The other place we visited was the stupendous Sri Ranganathaswamy temple dedicated to Vishnu in his form when lying down on Adisesa the coiled serpent. The temple is one of the eight Sywayambu Kshetra temples dedicated to the direct manifestation of Vishnu on Earth. These comprise five temples in south India and three in the north including the one at Pushkar which I had visited some time ago.

Trichy’s temple is on an epic scale and is the second largest Hindu temple in the world. Only the Angkor Watt which we visited in 2015 is larger. The temple is truly a sacred city with seven concentric walls or prakarams each one headed by a gopuram or gateway, the first of which the rajagopuram is the tallest at just under 300 feet. There are 21 gopurams in all, 39 pavilions, 50 shrines and a sublimely beautiful thousand columned mandapam or assembly hall with wonderful sculptures 

As always, however, Trichy’s great temple’s biggest attraction is crowd-watching the thousands of devotees attending it. The predominant colour of the saris is yellow, Vishnu’s hue, and among the worshipping crowds was an elephant who bestowed blessings by tapping the top of people’s heads with his trunk.Sandra and I received our tilak, naturally.

The lively and noisy scenes at a Hindu temple make a startling contrast to the hushed reverence of western Christian places of worship. Hinduism is such an alive and vibrant way of praying to the unseen godly forces which have formed this planet of ours. I could think of no greater contrast to Evensong at an English cathedral although, clearly, both are different ways of climbing the same mountain.

We really enjoyed our trip to Tiruchirapalli and its sights. We met very few westerners there and found the locals very welcoming and proud of their city which, incidentally, was voted the third cleanest city in India last year. We, indeed, wondered why it was such a pleasure to walk around this fascinating metropolis which is even mentioned in the great Tamil epic we are reading, the Shilapadiaram:

‘On a magnificent bed having a thousand heads spread out worshipped and praised by many in an islet surrounded by the Kaveri river with bellowing waves, is the lying posture of the one who has Lakshmi sitting in his chest.’



Two Books to Read in Tamilnadu

Two books I’ve taken from my Longoio shelves to read in the South Indian tropics are ‘Shilappadikaram’ (the ankle bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal and ‘Last man in Tower’ by Aravind Adiga. Almost two thousand years separate the two works, yet they are both recognizably by Tamil writers.

Shilappadikaram is a third century verse romance which is attributed to a Jain prince. The story deals with the miraculous and the tragic, the often wrought relationship between gods and men and the cruelty arising from karma where actions committed in past lives always return to bear fruit.

Apart from the hapless love tale between Kovalan and Kannaki the romantic epic offers precious insights into Tamil culture of the third century AD and, frankly, not much has changed. The religious rituals performed in present-day hindu temples follow identical formulas and caste customs have changed not very much. Fishing and agriculture still adhere to the same patterns and village life is still recognisably the same. 

The Shilappadikaram contains wonderful descriptions of music, drama and dance including detailed technical data on the art formd (eg on tuning vinas and mrindagams – south indian lutes snd drums). These are used today in the renaissance of Bharat natyam dance and carnatic music so characteristic of Tamilnadu.

The other book I have brought with me, ‘Last man in tower’ is another engrossing and encompassing novel by Man-booker prize winner Adiga who was born in Chennai, (formerly Madras). The rapid and often uproarous changes which India is now undergoing are vividly described in a story involving a group of inhabitants of an old housing estate in Mumbai who have to face speculative forces from real estate agents. As always the plot gives the author every chance to employ his prodigious descriptive powers. The colours, smells and noises of the semi-organised chaos of an Indian megalopolis are truly felt on one’s pulse.

Two books by Tamil authors which entrap and enrapture the reader with their magic prose – it’s little wonder that some of the best writing comes out of the multifarious, multicultured world inhabiting the sub-continent.