Sleeping beauty ... or femme fatale?

Flaming June by Lord Frederick Leighton
English // Academic Art (Classicism)
Painted with oil paints on a 1.2m × 1.2 m square canvas.

Flaming June has a fabulous back-story and also just one of my personal favourite works of art. I have a huge reproduction of it that I bought as a very young girl when I first moved out of home. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why I decided on this one and not one of my other favourite pieces at the time – the only real clue I can get is that it subconsciously reminds me of my older sister.. her favourite colour was apricot and she is a natural brunette beauty and loves her sleep (which we used to tease her about constantly)… so in my young impressionable pre-teen years when I was growing up – this picture cemented itself as being a representation of her. I also thought that my mum was Julie Andrews, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to Flaming June – the specs will tell you that it is an oil painting by Lord Frederick Leighton completed in 1895 just 10 months before his death. Its arguably one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It depicts a slumbering woman in a translucent orange dress. Looking closer and you notice a poisonous Oleander branch in the top right – this has been the subject of many speculations – three of my favourite include:

  • It symbolises how fragile the link is between sleep and death.
  • Leighton was acutely aware of his imminent death, and
  • Definitely the most badass explanation, the presence of Oleander could represent the imminent doom of a man’s infatuation with an unattainable woman.
The Dene Sisters

The model for the artwork is largely credited to Dorothy Dene (aka Ada Pullen) a British actress who quite possibly was having a romantic relationship with Leighton just before he died. She was his principal model for the last decade of his life and he ended up leaving the equivalent of £1 million (in today’s money) in a trust for Dorothy and her 3 sisters. (Sidenote: the 4 sisters names were: Ada, Hetty, Edith & Lena – their parents were genius… all-time favourite collection of sisters names ever!)

Dorothy is said to be tall, have large violet eyes and a flawless complexion. Leighton was supportive of her acting career – even paying for her to have elocution and drama lessons. In fact, its rumoured that George Bernard Shaw used Leighton and Dorothy’s relationship as the basis for the characters of Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (Aka: My Fair Lady)

Dorothy Dene

All of this put together makes Flaming June an interesting piece – however there’s even more to this story! After the painting was finished it became part of a private collection and then somehow ended up at a shop on Fulham Road in the early 1960’s with a $50 price tag on it (!!) – a young Andrew Lloyd Webber happened to be in the shop one day and spotted the artwork and wanted to buy it – he went back to his grandmother to ask to borrow the £50 and she promptly refused quoting:

“I will not have Victorian junk in my flat”

It was later bought by an art dealer and confirmed as an original and now resides in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. Webber has since offered £6m to buy it off the museum but has been very politely refused.

As recently as last year – another piece of the Flaming June puzzle was put together, with the discovery of a pencil and chalk head study of Flaming June uncovered in a closed up room of a recently deceased Duchess. The piece was sold for an estimated $135,000 pounds after being ‘heart-stoppingly’ discovered hanging behind a door in a small antechamber room used by servants just off the Duchess’ bedroom.

Image by Daily Telegraph

“I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else.”

― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion