Sunday afternoon, a bit nippy in London but indeed lovely sunny afternoon. Neil and I opt to go into Kensington to see the exhibition ‘Flaming June’ at the Leighton House Museum.
We walked through Holland Park pathways revering in nature and fresh greenery. The park filled with a sense of London’s autumnal season of leaves falling and fallen.
Entry for non-concessions is £12. Leighton House, quite a small museum (just the way I like it) was such a convenience to go through just under an hour.
Lord Fredrick Leighton lived in this museum alone in the mid 1860s. He lived and worked in the house most of his life until his death in 1896. He was the son of a doctor, he had been brought up abroad, studied at the art institute in Frankfurt, Germany where his family had settled.
The exhibition of flaming June was grouped as one of five of Lord Frederic Leighton’s iconic collections all loaned from private collections and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1. Lachrymae (New York)
2. The maid with the golden hair
3. Twixt Hope and Fear
4. Candida and
5. Flaming June
One of the most famous and widely reproduced paintings of the Victorian era – Flaming June, a searingly colourful image of a beautiful young woman drugged into sleep by the simmering heat of midsummer – is currently on loan back to the London studio where it was created in 1895.
In the early 20th century, when Victorian art was already falling out of fashion, Samuel Courtauld, the millionaire collector and founder of the Courtauld Institute, called it “the most wonderful painting in existence”.
The story of how Andrew Lloyd Webber saw Flaming June by Lord Leighton in a store window in the 60’s is legendary.
He loved the painting but did not have £50 to buy it. Can you imagine how heartbreaking it would be to find one of the finest of Victorian paintings for that price and not being able to afford it?
He trusted his eye and his heart. He did not care that the critics at that time cared nothing for that sort of Victorian sentiment, rejecting it with derogatory terms if they were forced to comment on it at all. But, he knew what he liked and he wanted that painting!
He went to his grandmother and asked her for the money to buy it but she wrote it off as kitsch and did not give him the money.
Passing from one owner to the next as it was falling out of fashion, “Flaming June” at one point was boarded up behind the false panel of a chimney mantel in a house in Clapham Common on the outskirts of London. It 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 founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Luis A. Ferré, would travel through Europe to buy works for the museum. When he saw “Flaming June” tucked away in a corner of the gallery of the art dealer Jeremy Stephen Maas, he immediately fell in love with the painting. He only had to pay 2,000 pounds ($8,000 today, factoring inflation) to acquire it.
The painting found its way and had returned to the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico where it was being looked after
Depicting a sensual, sun- drenched, sleeping female figure wrapped in orange draperies against a Mediterranean backdrop, Neil and I stood to observe Flaming June being displayed in its entirety amongst other spectators beside the other works listed above by Leighton.
In front of a shimmering sea on a high horizon line, an oleander flower lies on a classically inspired architectural parapet, looming over the woman’s head. Oleander is a poisonous flower, popularly written about by poets of the Victorian era. Leighton had a heart condition—angina pectoris—when he was painting “Flaming June.” Several art historians have suggested that the oleander indicates how Leighton was very much aware of his imminent death. Others have suggested it indicates the dangers of a man’s doomed infatuation with an unavailable woman or a femme fatale.
The discovery of these Leighton’s paintings places Flaming June back into its original home of birth, providing a compelling starting point for exploring its history.
“Flaming June” is inviting and elusive, either fascinating or irritating, perhaps for the same reason.
As we walked out, Neil kissed my face thanking me for bringing him to the museum as he would never have known about it. But without adding that I am such an ‘arty-farty’ and indeed a ‘Flaming June’! And we both laughed hard and walked into the streets…
My love for this piece has nothing to do with the fact that I am June 😄
‘Flaming June’ was inspired by ‘a chance attitude of a weary model who had a peculiarly subtle figure.’
— Sir Frederic Leighton, artist (1830–1896)