Paintings in Christie’s books are a subject still being scarcely discussed. Her great interest in the revival of Victorian paintings occurred long before Jeremy Maas published Victorian Painters and Sir John Betjeman led a campaign to protect the crumbling Victorian buildings.
As the Impressionists rise to fame, the lights extinguish for Victorian art. Having been perceived as prudish and encouraged conformity, a number of Victorian masterpieces become abandoned and forgotten.
I don’t think I’ve ever told you, my dears – you, Raymond and you, Joan about the rather curious little business that happened some years ago now. I don’t want to seem vain in any way – of course I know in comparison with you young people I am not clever at all – Raymond writes those very modern books all about rather unpleasant young men and women – and Joan paints those very remarkable pictures of square people with curious bulges on them – very clever of you, my dear, but as Raymond always says (only quite kindly, because he is the kindest of nephews) I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma-Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they seem hopelessly vieux jeu. Now let me see, what was I saying?
The opening of Miss Marple Tells A Story (in Miss Marple’s Final Cases) names two renowned but under-celebrated painters whose genius works regain their much-deserved credits a centenary later.
My impression of Flaming June was the striking pose of the woman in a saffron-coloured dress. What’s so special about a portrait of a woman in her slumber? Christie might have scolded it me on the spot had I spoken it out aloud.
Standing at the back of Sir Frederick’s stunning studio where it was displayed, I feel as if I were the man himself staring at his muse napping after a day’s tiring work. While the gilded tabernacle frame enforces the emotion to the painting the flowing material chosen for the dress showcasing beauty and intimacy. She must have been someone special.
I wondered whether Christie had an opportunity to see it in 1930; the last time it was shown to the public in the house. She would’ve been thrilled to had learnt about the accidental icon of Victorian art being reunited with Lachrymae, The Maid With The Golden Hair and ‘Twixt Hope and Fear – just as the way they were when first revealed to the public.
The fascinating story of Flaming June goes beyond its being disappeared until Jeremy Maas bought it for £1,000 from Colonel Frederick Beddington in 1962. A year later Luis A Ferre buys it from Maas for £2,000 . The founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce gives the neglected jewel its lasting home. The young Andrew Lloyd Weber could have got hold of it, had he not listened to her grandmother’s remark of not having any Victorian junk in her home.
Like Christie’s murder mystery, speculations revolve round the model’s identity. Whilst Flaming June came back in 1996 ’s Leighton centenary exhibition a star, the woman in it remains an enigma until 2011.
Following the discovery of the only head study of Flaming June (1894) in West Hosterley Place, now the ‘weary model’ can be confirmed as none other than Dorothy Dene.
The nineteen-year-old working-class girl from Clapham meets the fifty-year-old son of a physician. Leighton’s grandfather was the primary physician to the Russian royal family in St. Petersburg.
Their class difference holds little of their becoming closer; his introducing her to his art’s circle of friends and advancing her stage career. Their unusual relationship subsequently triggers rumours of their being intimate. Later she lives in a flat not far from Leighton House and is allowed at his dead bed. He leaves a bequest of £5,000 for her and another £5,000 to set up a trust fund to help her siblings. Dene dies at the age of forty in 1900.
Both never marry despite the witnessed affection between them. Either he might have been just a father figure to her or he thought he had been too old to be her husband. Whatever the story is, they remind me of Boyd Barrington and Barbara Franklyn in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The former is a bachelor with a high social standing and the latter a scientist’s wife to whom Barrington has known since she was seventeen. Their spending summer at Styles –now a guest house running by the Lutrells- surge old memories and inevitably the old feelings.
I bid goodbye to Leighton House with lingering thoughts about Sir Frederick and Dorothy Dene. Theirs are a book to write.
-Flaming June: The Making of an Icon. Leighton House Museum (4 November 2016 – 2 April 2017)