The erotic masterpiece we nearly lost

Frederic Leighton's Flaming June is now considered a treasure of Victorian painting. But at one point it was practically worthless - and nearly vanished, writes Alastair Sooke.

This is how the story goes: one day in 1962, an Irish builder walked into a junk shop on Battersea Rise in south London, carrying a painting in an elaborate gilt frame.

He said that he'd found it behind a panel above a chimneypiece while demolishing a vacant house nearby.

Hoping to flog it for a few quid, he haggled with the shop's owner, before agreeing a price of £60. Unbeknownst to him, the picture was Flaming June (1895), by the eminent Victorian artist Frederic Leighton.

"It's probably a cock-and-bull story," says Daniel Robbins, senior curator of the Leighton House Museum in west London, referring to this dramatic tale of the picture's rediscovery. (Art historians remain uncertain about its whereabouts between 1930 and 1962.)

"But it has attached itself to the myth of the painting."

Like all good stories, though, it contains an element of truth: by the 1960s, following the onslaught of Modernism, Victorian art was at a pitifully low ebb.

So low, indeed, that even a ravishing masterpiece such as Flaming June - which depicts a sexy young girl in a blazing, semi-transparent saffron robe, sleeping on a marble bench beside a sparkling sea - could go unrecognised.

Having added Flaming June to his stock, the shop owner struggled to shift it: supposedly, he found it easier to sell its eye-catching 'tabernacle' frame, without the painting - in other words, the frame, at that moment, was valued more highly than the picture itself.

Not long afterwards, though, Jeremy Maas, a far-sighted art dealer with an interest in Victorian painting, acquired it.

He offered Flaming June to various British galleries, including the Tate, but they all turned it down.

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