Among an unfettered mass of dark crimson and pale olive draperies a young woman dressed in radiant orange sleeps peacefully. In the distance lies endless Mediterranean waters, shimmering in the gleaming sun; a mountainous island appears beyond the afternoon haze. She sleeps against a marble bench and parapet, her head leaning into her bent arm like a soft pillow; the hand of the remaining arm rests gently on the upper arm of the other. The rest of her body takes on a foetal position with one foot tucked underneath the other leg which presses against the marble floor with her toes.
Flaming June is back. She sleeps again in the paradise of her birthplace.
‘The design was not a deliberate one, but was suggested by a chance attitude of a weary model who had a peculiarly supple figure.’ Frederic, Lord Leighton’s words are nothing short of modest. As one of the icons of Victorian painting, the origin of its conception may come as rather anti-climactic. Yet at the same time, it is undeniably sweet and revealing of one of the core notions of the Aesthetic Movement: art for art’s sake. In a nutshell, the movement stressed form over subject matter. Formal beauty and its sensual effects were held in high esteem, overruling any practical, moral, or narrative interests. Art took a turn towards the visually superficial.
Flaming June (1895) is a famously ambiguous painting and the title doesn’t do much to decipher it either: ‘does it refer to the sleeping woman’s identity, or does the title mean simply that the scene is set in the month of June? Are we meant to interpret the figure as a personification?’, to quote a passage from the exhibition catalogue.
Her rediscovery is somewhat of a fairytale. The story goes that it was found by an Irish builder in 1962 behind a panel above the chimney-piece of a house he was demolishing. He then took the painting (then in a tabernacle frame) to Ingo Fincke’s frame and artists’ materials shop on Battersea Rise. They agreed on a price of £60. One needs to take this story with a pinch of salt and exactly how the painting arrived in Clapham Common also remains unclear; her whereabouts had been unrecorded for the past two decades at least.
By the time the young Andrew Lloyd Webber glimpsed the painting for £50, Fincke had already sold the tabernacle frame. Failing to borrow the money from his Victoriana-hating grandmother, Lloyd Webber missed his chance. It was later sold to a barber, Mr Demaine, who also happened to be an art collector. He, in turn, sold it to Colonel Frederick Beddington who worked for the art dealers Wildenstein & Co. and was now retired from the army. Beddington hung it in his flat at 63 Prince’s Gate but felt it took up too much space; he sold it to art dealer Jeremy Maas for £1,000, the highest amount paid for a Leighton painting in decades.
Unlike Lloyd Webber’s grandmother, Maas was an advocate for reviving interest in Victorian art and culture. He had opened his premises in 1960 in Clifford Street, Mayfair (currently succeeded by his son, Rupert Maas). Flaming June was cleaned and framed in the spring of 1962 before being offered to every British museum possible; Maas was met with rejection. He hung the painting in his gallery on 1 June 1963, on the wall immediately to the left of the entrance. Eventually, René Taylor, the director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, came into the gallery; he was looking for works of art for the museum on behalf of Luis A. Ferré, the museum’s founder. Keeping his promise to come back soon, Taylor came back with Ferré. The latter recalled that it was love at first sight and bought it for £2,000 on 24 June. And so, she was shipped off across the Atlantic to the city of Ponce, awaiting her fame once more.
In Leighton’s day – or rather very soon after his death – Flaming June was already proving rather popular. The artist sent six paintings for submission to the Royal Academy exhibition in April 1895. Shortly afterwards, William Luson Thomas, owner of the art-focused illustrated newspaper The Graphic, bought Flaming June in two instalments of £577 and 10 shillings each on 2 June and 9 August.
Leighton died on 25 January 1896. The painting was exhibited in the offices of The Graphic and swarms of people came to see it, reported The Pall Mall Gazette. That November, The Graphic advertised a ‘Most Important Coloured Presentation Plate’ of Flaming June to be included in their Christmas issue. The advertisement further promoted a ‘Few Specially Printed Copies of the above Plate, Handsomely Framed in 4in. Black and Gold’ for 10 shillings. These mass-produced, coloured prints allowed anyone to own a copy of the painting in their household. With the looming nostalgia of Leighton’s death and Flaming June being his last finished painting, her commercial appeal and dissemination was inevitable.
The exhibition opens with a prelude exploring the painting’s conception. We are shown prints of Summer Moon (1872; untraced), The Garden of the Hesperides (1891-92), and Summer Slumber (1894; untraced), paintings which foreshadowed Flaming June’s reclining attitude whilst taking inspiration from Michelangelo’s marble personification of Night (1526-31) on the sarcophagus of the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence.
Continuing this trail is a set of eight preparatory drawings, one of which was sold at Christie’s last summer. Life studies of his model slumped in a chair in variative poses feels like a modelling session played out in front of one’s eyes. Sometimes she turns to the left, others to the right. Her arms reach over her head, or lie beneath it to be rested on. Her legs and feet almost always stay the same: one foot tucked underneath the thigh of the other. The model looks relaxed, her movements as if almost imitating ones made when one is truly asleep in a chair.
Later studies demonstrate Leighton’s exceptional proficiency to render drapery. The detailed folds, drawn in white chalk, glimmer against the dark brown paper, tenderly meandering across the model’s serpentine body. She appears almost sculptural, carved into perfection like Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498-99).
From life drawings and drapery studies, we lead up to his squared drawings, made in preparation for scaling-up his designs on to canvas. We also see the beginnings of the Mediterranean seascape in the background of the painting and even the marble parapet. The vase of oleanders has not been added in yet, a study of which hangs in his studio.
Further drawings on display are for Lachrymae (1895) and the Phoenicians Bartering with Ancient Britons (1894); the former was among the paintings Leighton submitted for the 1895 Academy exhibition. The latter was part of a large 24-mural commission for the Royal Exchange building in 1894 when Leighton was developing his paintings for the following year, painted in spirit fresco on a specially-prepared canvas measuring almost 5.5 metres high and 3.6 metres wide.
Continuing around the room we naturally enter Leighton’s bedroom. And there, right in front of one’s eyes, hangs Flaming June above the fireplace. Or so one had hoped with much anticipation. Instead, we are faced with The Graphic’s ‘handsomely’ made print mentioned above.
The original awaits behind the air-conditioned room of the Upper Perrin Gallery. We are greeted with a blown-up version of Adolphe Augustus Boucher’s photograph of Leighton’s 1895 submissions on their easels in his studio from 1 April 1895, having just walked past the very spot they once occupied 122 years ago. The paintings were unveiled in his studio on 7 April, Show Sunday, before being sent to the Academy. Finally, the spectacle draws to a close as the real Flaming June is reunited with her photogenic sisters. Her resplendent drapery and bright colours catch the attention of every visitor, stealing the limelight, and putting her sisters to shame. Or so one would expect.
Five paintings make up the display: Candida (c. 1894-95), Lachrymae, The Maid with Golden Hair (c. 1894-95), ‘Twixt Hope and Fear (c. 1894-95), and Flaming June. Except for Lachrymae (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Flaming June (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico), the rest are in private collections, as well as depicting half-length figures or less. The painting above Candida in the photograph was the sixth submission, now untraced and referred to simply as A Study (c. 1894-95).
As Elizabeth Prettejohn notes in the catalogue, Leighton’s group of pictures offers a variety of moods and caters to varying audiences. From ‘the sombre Lachrymae, through the imposing ‘Twixt, Hope and Fear and the charming Maid with the Golden Hair, to the radiant Flaming June.’ Candida’s place in the submission was also replaced by A Listener (c. 1895; untraced), a work clearly catering to popular taste for baby pictures which John Everett Millais was more than happy to entertain.
Most these pictures represent a pictorial type pioneered by Leighton and Dante Gabriel Rossetti that critics happily mocked: the singular female figure. Images of this type were vulnerable to comments about the sexualisation and demeaning of women. They were made to be objectified, ‘always smooth and sleek, and delicately tinted, and always ready to be photogravured and processed for the customers of the print seller’, proclaimed The New York Times. Fortunately, many others were willing to treat them as a serious artistic category.
Although Lachrymae and Flaming June seem to fit The New York Times’ description of the passive, musing ‘Leighton girl’, other works seem to subvert these narrow-minded opinions. Candida adopts the authoritative Roman profile, an impressive mark of status usually reserved for emperors. ‘Twixt Hope and Fear intimidates the unwitting spectator with her frontal gaze and expensive furs.
But let us return to the star of the show. On the wall beside her hangs a tiny colour sketch. This was made so that Leighton could fix his colours before working on the full-sized painting. There are also a few noticeable changes between the two. Leighton originally intended for the awning at the top of the painting to bear an irregular edge; this was replaced with a straight horizontal band in the finished piece. He also eliminated the silhouette of an island in the background, visible in the sketch. And yet, although Flaming June looks like a generic, overly finished academic painting, she is curiously unlike that up close. Whilst her body and facial features are painted with remarkable sensitivity, her drapery is surprisingly impressionistic. The richer and thicker the folds, the thicker and less precise are his brushstrokes.
‘Flaming June: The Making of an Icon’ is a wonderfully nostalgic exhibition about the creation and reception of one of Victorian art’s most famous paintings. It is a simple exhibition without much to dislike and lots to wonder. The drawings are fascinating in their own right – perhaps I am biased – and her rise to fame is equally curious if not surreal. The reunion of Leighton’s submissions was an excellent choice and gives Flaming June and the exhibition a more interesting edge. In the end, one has either chosen Flaming June as his or her favourite painting in the exhibition or not.
P.S. I chose Candida.
‘Flaming June: The Making of an Icon’ is at Leighton House Museum, London, until 2 April 2017, www.leightonhouse.co.uk.