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Leighton House

Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June: The Making of an Icon

The remarkable journey of Leighton's most renowned work and icon of High Victorian Art

Frederic Leighton, Flaming June (1895), Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico

Unique study for Flaming June returns to Leighton House

Leighton's only colour sketch of his masterpiece, Flaming June (1895)  is the centre piece of a brand-new display at Leighton House, presented alongside a selection of preparatory drawings from the museum's collection of works on paper. The display is located within the free-to-visit basement area in the museum's new wing, enabling all visitors access to an exceptional icon of nineteenth-century British art.  The display coincides with the return of Flaming June to London, on show at the Royal Academy of Arts (17 February 2024 - 12 January 2025).


At the end of his career, Frederic Leighton painted Flaming June, the picture that would become his most well-known work and one of the most celebrated images of nineteenth-century art. The return to Leighton House of Leighton’s only colour sketch in oils for the Victorian masterpiece constitutes a significant milestone in the museum’s ongoing efforts to recover particularly relevant works of art.

The jewel-like preparatory colour sketch (c.1895) unveils defining features of the finished painting, confidently introducing the rich orange colouring and the effect of the sunlight on the sea, laid on in impasto. It also reveals discarded or modified elements, such as the irregular form of the awning and the small island depicted on the left of the horizon, that Leighton removed from the final work. Changes at this late stage were rare for Leighton, giving added significance to this sketch as a record of Leighton’s original intention for the painting. At least ten drawn studies for Flaming June also survive, with five of these in the Leighton House collection.


Book tickets: Curator Tour: Flaming June with Daniel Robbins


Colour Sketch for Flaming June (11 x 11cm) has been returned on permanent loan to Leighton House, accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Sir David Verey CBE, Chairman of The Friends, and allocated to Leighton House, 2023.

Frederic Leighton, Colour Sketch for Flaming June (c.1895) on display at Leighton House

The making of an icon

Known as ‘The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere’, Frederic Leighton’s final painting of Flaming June (1895) is now part of the collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico. How this masterpiece arrived in the Caribbean is truly an extraordinary story, not only of a single work but of the fate of Victorian art as a whole.

An instantly recognisable icon of High Victorian Art, today, it is virtually priceless. But this was not always the case...

Leighton's studio on Show Sunday, 7th April 1895

From Leighton’s studio to Puerto Rico

Flaming June was first unveiled to the public in Leighton’s studio on Show Sunday, 7th April 1895, as one of his six final submissions to the Royal Academy.

When at the Academy, William Luson Thomas, the owner of The Graphic weekly newspaper, was struck by the works self-contained composition and vibrant palette. The work could easily be reproduced, so he purchased Leighton's painting for just over £1,000. For the Christmas 1896 edition of The Graphic, at a shilling a copy, Flaming June hung in half-a-million parlours across Britain.

By 1906, a prosperous widow had bought Flaming June from The Graphic. The work was then loaned to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1915, and in 1930 appeared again at Leighton House to mark the centenary of his birth.

Frederic Leighton's Flaming June and The Graphic reproduction

And then Flaming June disappeared. What happened over the next 3 decades is shrouded in mystery.

Eventually, one day in 1962, the work was discovered by a builder in a house on Clapham Common which was being demolished. He carried Flaming June, still in the original enormous tabernacle frame, to a local Art shop, looking for a quick sale. Flaming June was sold for £60, with the frame deemed more valuable than the painting. Stripped of the tabernacle, Flaming June languished, unwanted, in the little shop on Battersea Rise.

Eventually a Mayfair barber (and part time Art dealer) bought the work. Flaming June passed hands twice before art dealer, Jeremy Maas picked it up. He bought Flaming June for less than Leighton had sold her for 70 years earlier. Maas then offered the work, unsuccessfully, to various museums.

In the heatwave of 1963, Maas hung the painting in his gallery on Clifford Street. It was here that Luis A. Ferré, first saw Flaming June and was transfixed, falling ‘in love with her at first sight’. He acquired Leighton’s masterpiece for £2,000, which was to be housed alongside other paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the Victorian era in his new Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, designed by MoMA architect Edward Durrell Stone.

Shipped across the Atlantic to become ‘The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere’, she has since gained a super-star status that tracks the rehabilitation of Victorian Art.

In 2016-17 the iconic work once again made its way back to Leighton House (temporarily), in the landmark exhibition Flaming June: The Making of an Icon.

Flaming June: The Making of an Icon exhibition at Leighton House 2016-17

Creating Flaming June

Based upon a sketch Leighton made of a ‘chance attitude of a weary model with a supple figure’ curled up for a nap in a chair. Flaming June had, in fact, been forming in Leighton’s mind for years and first appears as a carved bas-relief motif on a marble plinth in his earlier work Summer Slumber (1894).

Through a series of studies, which remain within the Leighton House collection, we can see Leighton’s experimentation with differing poses and the evolution of the final composition.

Studies drawn from life for Flaming June

Largely completed over a matter of weeks during the winter of 1894 by an ailing Leighton - his ability to paint rapidly was a product of his consistent working practises, honed over decades. In fact, Leighton’s last years were some of the most productive of his career, and in an interview shortly before his death he remarked, ‘thank goodness my ailment has not interfered with my capacity for work, for I have never had a better appetite for it, nor I believe done better.’  

Leighton succumbed to heart disease in January 1896, yet the work shows no signs of ‘weakness or wavering’. It is a dazzling exercise of line, colour, rhythm, and atmosphere.

Model and muse

Though identification of a particular model cannot be certain, two likely candidates who were Leighton’s principal models in his later years and both feature in other artworks of this time, are Dorothy Dene and Mary Lloyd.

Mary Lloyd appears to have sat for both Lachrymae and ‘Twixt Hope and Fear, which were amongst the works Leighton submitted to the Royal Academy in 1895, and Dorothy Dene is identified as the sitter for Clytie (1895-6) by Leighton’s neighbour and biographer, Emilie Russell Barrington.

Frederic Leighton's Lachrymae (Metropolitan Museum of Art), ‘Twixt Hope and Fear (private collection), and Clytie (Leighton House)

Today, Flaming June has become a familiar motif in popular culture. From her first reproduction in The Graphic in 1896, to Jessica Chastain’s Vogue cover of 2013, the ethereal figure has become the source of inspiration for countless imitations and reproductions.

Jessica Chastain's 2013 Vogue cover, inspired by Leighton's Flaming June