Flaming June, and other Pre-Raphaelites

by Sally Steele

 Sir Frederic Leighton’s 1895 painting Flaming June. Photograph: Museo de Arte de Ponce

Sir Frederic Leighton’s 1895 painting Flaming June. Photograph: Museo de Arte de Ponce

“PAINT the leaves as they grow!

If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.” John Ruskin

The Guardian, Friday, May 1, 2015: A remarkable study for Flaming June, one of the best known of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings, has been discovered hanging discreetly behind a bedroom door in an English country mansion.

I have been a student of Pre-Raphaelite art forever, really. My mother, an art volunteer & educator had an affinity for the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of my earliest memories of her are of her coming home from art classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Martin Jackson, full of paint smudges and stories. When our family moved to rural Chester Country, one of the first places my Mom made into a home away from home was the Delaware Art Museum. This museum is known throughout the world for its Pre-Raphaelite collection. She spent countless hours studying, and even more hours delighting museum-goers with her knowledge of the painters and the paintings.

The New York Times, August 7, 2014: In June, it [The Delaware Art Museum] was formally sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has asked its members not to lend artwork to Delaware or assist with its exhibitions.

The spanking came one day after the museum sold a painting from its collection, William Holman Hunt’s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” Trustees say that the sale was the only way to help settle a $19.8 million expansion debt and plump the museum’s endowment. Now, for the first time, the museum is confirming that it will sell two more works. The first, Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time” (1875), is a masterpiece of American genre painting, a quietly intense farm scene in which a mother and son turn away and gaze over a wooden fence that seems to say something about held-back emotion. The Homer will be offered in a Sotheby’s auction this fall, unless a buyer turns up first. “That is our plan of attack,” Gerret Copeland, the chairman of the Delaware Museum board, explained. “If we find a private buyer, it will go sooner.”

In some ways, the situation in Delaware can be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of over-expansion. In 2005, the museum completed a construction project that doubled its space. Glass wings (designed by Ann Beha Architects) rose up on either side of the original building, a trim, red-brick, Georgian-style structure that brought to mind a suburban bank.

But renovating and enlarging art museums, which has become so popular you might think size was the goal of art, is no guarantee of larger audiences. Revealingly, the Delaware Museum’s membership is down to 1,600 households, from a peak of about 3,000 in 2001, said Jessica Jenkins, a museum spokeswoman.

Selling artwork to fund operations (as opposed to acquisitions) is widely viewed as self-defeating, like burning down your house to heat the kitchen. Museums are supposed to safeguard art for future generations, not cash in or out. And as the sale of the Holman Hunt proved, it doesn’t always go as hoped.

The sad state of the museum notwithstanding, my own love of Pre-Raphaelite art, and my own many hours spent at the museum studying and being inspired are life-long, and hopefully something I pass along to my sons, both artists.

Frederick Leighton

Frederic Leighton



Frederic Leighton was knighted at Windsor in 1878, and was created a baronet, of Holland Park Road in the Parish of St Mary Abbots, Kensington, in the County of Middlesex, eight years later. He was the first painter to be given a peerage, in the New Year Honours List of 1896. The patent creating him Baron Leighton, of Stretton in the County of Shropshire, was issued on 24 January 1896; Leighton died the next day of angina pectoris.



The Guardian, Friday, May 1, 2015: The discovery of the head study for Sir Frederic Leighton’s picture was announced on Friday — one of many extraordinary secrets to emerge from a 16th-century manor house owned by Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe until her death, aged 99, last year.

A pencil and chalk study for Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

A pencil and chalk study for Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The heir, to his immense surprise, was her great-nephew Bamber Gascoigne, former host of University Challenge. He has vowed to begin carrying out the essential restoration needed to secure the house’s future and has arranged with Sotheby’s to sell objects from the house which paint a picture of an England that no longer exists.

The Leighton drawing is particularly exciting. Simon Toll, Sotheby’s Victorian art specialist, said finding it behind the door of a small, dark anteroom off the duchess’s bedroom was “thrilling … one of the most heart-stopping moments in my career.”

Flaming June is on posters all over the world, yet resides in the most unexpected of places – the municipal art museum of Puerto Rico’s second biggest city, Ponce, where it is known as “the Mona Lisa of the southern hemisphere.” It was snapped up by the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Ferré, in 1963 for $1,000 (£660) when Pre-Raphaelites were still painfully out-of-fashion. But while experts were aware of the existence of the pencil and chalk preparatory drawing because it featured in an 1895 art magazine, they did not know its location.

Toll said he immediately recognized the study, which joins existing nude and drapery studies for the painting. “This head study is the last piece of the jigsaw in terms of the preparatory work Leighton undertook before starting on the big oil painting.”  Even Sargent had a  ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ period in rural England with ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.’

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-6, by John Singer Sargent, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887, Tate Britain

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-6, by John Singer Sargent, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887, Tate Britain


It seems likely that the drawing was purchased directly from the artist’s studio after Leighton’s death. It is just one treasure from West Horlsey Place, the duchess’s remarkable time-capsule house … to walk around it is like being in an EM Forster novel.  She allowed few people beyond the main reception rooms. Gascoigne, now 80, spent many happy lunches at his great-aunt’s house but never stepped foot past the stone hall where meals were served or the drawing room and garden room. “In all that time she never said to anybody, ‘Would you like to see upstairs?’ I think it may have been considered bad form, showing off or something. I saw the amazing upstairs drawing room for the first time, as its owner.”

He had no idea that such a treasure trove existed in the labyrinth of rooms beyond.

The contents evoke a lifestyle so aristocratically excessive that characters in Downton Abbey might have thought it a touch too much. There are liveried staff uniforms; monogrammed china which members of the royal family would have used as dinner guests; a 10ft white cut-velvet cloak studded with paste stones which the duchess’s mother would have worn while welcoming guests to parties in the 1920s and 1930s; and a silver Asprey breakfast-in-bed tray.












The duchess’s life was as fascinating as her house. She was born Mary Evelyn Hungerford Crewe-Milnes and married the Duke of Roxburghe – “Bobo” to his friends and family – in Westminster Abbey in 1935, a society wedding that brought together two of Britain’s great aristocratic families.

George Innes-Ker, 9th Duke of Roxburghe

George Innes-Ker, 9th Duke of Roxburghe








The marriage deteriorated, and in 1953 her husband had his butler deliver divorce papers to her on a silver tray while they were both eating breakfast.




The Roxburghe castle

Not pleased, Mary barricaded herself into a castle wing where she remained for two months, in spite of the duke turning off the power and water. It was only the intervention of a neighbour, the Earl of Home, soon to be prime minister Alec Douglas-Home, which brought the standoff to a close.


West Horsley Place, “among other Shakespearean luminaries, Henry VIII dropped by West Horsley Place for what is rather casually described as a 35-course lunch”

Mary then divided her time between London and West Horsley Place, purchased by her parents as a country retreat in the 1930s. Gasgoigne was not expecting to inherit it. “I was absolutely astonished and, in a way, it didn’t mean anything for a bit – it seemed so strange.” It is beginning to make sense now after a year or so. The house, essentially Tudor era with an 18th-century red-brick facade screwed to it, is beautiful but needs extensive restoration. “People who know about houses say I do sympathise with you, said Gascoigne. They say ‘thank God it isn’t me’.”


The prime objects to go on auction later in the month in London will, however, be the ones that pack more narrative punch than they will demand financial pocket-depth. At the end of the month, on May 27, certain curated personal effects and accoutrements as selected by Gascoigne and Sotheby’s will go under the hammer

Whatever money is made will, after death duties, be ploughed into the house. “It is rather a late age in life to be starting an adventure,” admitted Gascoigne. “Having failed to climb Everest perhaps one needs to try something else.”


Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe — Obituary, The Telegraph, July 9, 2014:


Wedding of Mary Evelyn Hungerford Crewe-Milnes and the Duke of Roxburghe, 1935


In 1935 she was married in Westminster Abbey to the 9th Duke of Roxburghe — “Bobo” to his intimates — a Scottish landowner of more than 80,000 acres, and perhaps the best shot in the kingdom.

In 1937 the Duchess’s imposing stature and dark good looks were again seen to advantage in the Abbey at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. With the Duchesses of Buccleuch, Norfolk and Rutland, she carried the new Queen’s train.

Mary Roxburghe showed enterprise in the early months of the war by joining a party of “illicit wives” who had wangled passages to the Middle East to be with their Army husbands. Peter Coats, the garden designer and ADC to General Wavell, noted in April 1940: “Palestine is more like Ladies’ Day at Ascot than ever. Actually, I disapprove of them being here, just because they can pull strings and have the fare. But as they are all friends, I can’t work against them.”

A few weeks later the ever-obliging ADC extricated the Duchess from her car, marooned near Jerusalem in a herd of goats.

After her divorce, Mary Roxburghe spent much of her life at 15, Hyde Park Gardens, a large and elegantly furnished flat overlooking the park. She worked for many charities and was President of the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds. She also became an enthusiastic member of the Royal Society of Literature, and was for many years a devoted patron of the Royal Ballet.

Caricature of Frederic Leighton

Caricature of Frederic Leighton


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