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)