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Frederic, Lord Leighton, 'Study for Flaming June', pencil and white chalk. Estimated at £40,000-60,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- The only known head study for one of the most famous masterpieces of the nineteenth century has re-emerged 120 years after it was last reproduced in an art magazine in 1895. The important rediscovery of pencil and white chalk study for Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Flaming June, provides the missing link in the preparatory work for the painting that has become known as ‘The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere’. Estimated at £40,000-60,000, the drawing will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London this summer. 

The study comes to auction from the Historic Collection of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe and was found hanging discreetly on a bedroom wall at West Horsley Place, her quintessentially English red-brick sixteenth-century mansion and 400-acre Surrey estate. Contents from this extraordinary home – frozen in time – will be offered at Sotheby’s in London on 27th and 28th May and the drawing will be offered in a separate sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art in London on 15th July 2015. 

Pictures and objects brought together by the Crewe family, one of Britain’s greatest aristocratic families, were consolidated at West Horsley Place from their numerous great houses across Britain and it is likely that the Leighton drawing was purchased from the artist’s studio after his death. It represents one of the most important surviving drawings relating to this famous painting. 

Simon Toll, Sotheby's Victorian Art specialist, commented: "I discovered the drawing hanging behind the door in Lady Roxburghe's bedroom at West Horsley Place and immediately realised I was looking at the original of the drawing that is illustrated in the Magazine of Art from 1895. This head study for the painting is the last piece of the jigsaw in terms of the preparatory work Leighton undertook before starting on the big oil painting. Both the nude and the drapery studies for the figure are known and accounted for, as is the oil sketch formerly in the Leverhulme collection and sold by Sotheby's in 2001. It is a thrilling find, one of the most heart-stopping moments in my career." 

Painted in 1895, Flaming June is now internationally famous, but this has not always been the case. Like the drawing, the painting was lost from sight for many years. Leighton was at the height of his career when in 1895 he exhibited Flaming June at the Royal Academy, where it met with an enthusiastic reception. The picture was loaned for some years to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, returned to its owner in 1930, sold shortly afterwards and subsequently lost for more than 30 years. It reappeared in 1963 on a market trader’s stall in Chelsea with little fanfare, selling to a London-based Polish frame maker for £50. After changing hands a few times in quick succession, one owner being a hairdresser on Albemarle Street with a side-line in selling pictures, it was bought by art dealer Jeremy Maas, a pioneer in re-establishing the reputation of many painters of the Victorian era who illustrated the front cover of his book Victorian Painters with a colour image of the work, in recognition of Flaming June’s deserving of iconic status. With British interest in Victorian art at its lowest ebb since the height of the Victorian Empire, the painting was purchased by Luis Ferre, then the Governor of Puerto Rico and now resides in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. 

The drawings produced by Leighton illustrate and explain his methods as a painter. In the preparatory drawings for Flaming June he was not concerned with capturing the individual characteristics of his subject, but with realising an ideal – not just one of beauty, which was a natural attribute of his model, but also of pose, expression and overall composition. Leighton kept his drawings in drawers and often referred to them, singling out individual sheets, choosing poses, revising themes. 

There has been some debate regarding the model for Flaming June. Traditionally she has been identified as Dorothy Dene, Leighton’s favourite professional model in the 1880s. In the early 1890s, however, another beautiful woman’s face became prominent in Leighton’s work, that of Mary Lloyd, whose classical and striking looks ensured her popularity among Leighton and his peers. Lloyd maintained her ‘respectability’ by only posing clothed. It is likely that both identifications are accurate and that Mary Lloyd posed for the head and Dorothy Dene posed for the figure Almost ever since Flaming June turned up on the market stall, collectors have been lamenting their missed opportunity to buy for a fraction of its true worth one of the most famous of all Victorian paintings. The reappearance of this study is no small recompense for that loss. 

The sale includes a further work by Leighton, another re-discovery. Catarina was painted in 1879, the year following the artist’s election as President of the Royal Academy. Purchased privately in the UK in the 1930s, it has remained in the same family ever since. Depicting an Italian girl wearing peasant dress with jasmine flowers in her hair, the painting comes to auction with an estimate of £100,000-150,000. 

By the time Leighton died in 1896, he had become a public institution, his career inseparably linked to the Royal Academy. He was elected President of the Academy in 1878 and over the next eighteen years he raised the status of British art to an unprecedented level. Made a baronet in 1886 and raised to the peerage a few days before he died – the first and so far only British artist to be so honoured – Leighton’s ascent to stardom and celebrity status was complete, so much so that his death was considered a national loss. He was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral and Queen Victoria sent a wreath from Buckingham Palace. The obituaries both in Britain and abroad were extensive, confirming his position in the art world. 

The first decade of the twentieth century saw the publication of a two-volume biography and devotees of the artist continuing to bid and buy his paintings. By the inter-war years, however, interest in Leighton’s work had ceased and over the next 40 years his paintings were consigned to obscurity, with the post-war period witnessing the nadir of interest in Victorian art. The 1970s marked Leighton’s re-assimilation to the canon of illustrious British artists, with the publication of a monograph in 1975 and the exhibition Victorian High Renaissance in 1978-9. Since then Leighton has once more become a celebrated figure, who was dedicated throughout his life to art and the pursuit of beauty.