‘The most wonderful painting in existence’, once sold for £30 and considered less valuable than its frame, is back in London

Flaming June by Frederick, Lord Leighton, has seen its reputation rise, fall, and rise again in the 128 years since it first went on public display. Carla Passino charts its path.

How tastes change. Once hailed (by Samuel Courtauld) as ‘the most wonderful painting in existence’, Flaming June, by Frederick, Lord Leighton (1830–96), was so outmoded by the time it was rediscovered in the 1960s that its gilt frame was deemed more valuable than the artwork itself and sold separately. Leighton would have been horrified: his sleeping, orange-clad woman had been widely acclaimed when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1895.

Thought to explore the connection between sleep and death, Flaming June was originally bought by The Graphic’s founder William Luson Thomas, but vanished from the public eye in the 1930s. Uncovered during building work in 1962 and split from its frame, it languished in a London shop, where it was spotted by a young Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who, however, couldn’t afford the £30 (some say £60) price (‘Victorian beauties take the stage’, September 25, 2003). Art dealer Jeremy Maas then bought it, but even he couldn’t place it with either museums or private collectors.

This proved a stroke of luck for Luis Ferré, founder of Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce, who secured it from Maas for £2,000, equivalent to £35,000 in today’s money. That’s quite the bargain for a painting which has become one of the most celebrated of the Victorian era, far and away Leighton’s most famous piece, and certainly worth many millions — even though, predictably, not everybody sees its value. Those changing tastes once more.

You can now make your own mind up about the piece, however, for Flaming June is back in Britain for a spell, for only the second time in over half a century. The Puerto Rican museum that has been its home these past few decades was hit by earth-quakes in 2020 and, as a result, Flaming June is touring the world on loan — it will be on display at London’s Royal Academy from February 17–January 12, 2025. Entry is free, and there’s no booking required.

See royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/flaming-june for more details and hours.

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