Flaming June, surely the most romantic and summery of all well-known British paintings, is finally returning home, to the London house where Frederic Leighton first imagined his fiery image almost 130 years ago.
Now, as temperatures rise in the run-up to June, the museum in the artist’s former home has been unexpectedly given the smaller, first version of the world-famous work that Leighton painted in 1894.
“Without question, Flaming June is the most impactful image that Leighton ever produced,” said the museum’s senior curator, Daniel Robbins. “The strong colour was referred to by critics at the time, but they really had no idea then that the painting would go on to have such resonance.”
Leighton painted Flaming June towards the end of his life, and it was one of his last submissions to the Royal Academy summer show.
“We have always known Leighton worked in a systematic, methodical way; first making sketches and then a colour study in oil to get the colour balance and the harmony of the picture right,” said Robbins. “Then he usually went on to paint the full canvas with very little deviation. But in this case we can see he later thought better of a little island in the background, and he also changed the shape of the awning above the reclining figure. The little painting certainly communicates the vibrancy and colour of the final work.”
The recently restored museum at Leighton House is one of the nominees for the 2023 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize, and Robbins and his team regard the return of Flaming June as an equal bit of good fortune.
“This is the perfect moment. When we were planning the new displays, we wanted to introduce him as a person and show something of his process. Then, out of the blue, the new owner of the painting, Sir David Verey, chairman of the Friends of Leighton House, showed me the contents of a crate. Inside was his new purchase, the only colour study for Flaming June, which he wanted to give to us.
“The works of Leighton’s mature career were all painted in the studio on the first floor of the house. Before he died in 1896, he gave the study of Flaming June to his friend, the baritone George Henschel, and it has only had three owners since.”
The full canvas, finished in 1895 and owned since 1963 by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, is currently on show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When it was loaned to the London museum seven years ago, it proved a big draw.
“People travelled from all over, and there were many who had a poster of it on a wall as a student or had been sent it as a postcard,” recalled Robbins. “It had such meaning to people and triggered strong memories.”
Verey said: “I am sure Flaming June’s presence will enchant our growing number of visitors at Leighton House.” It will be displayed in the free-to-visit new wing of the building from 7 June.