In the 1960s, when Victorian art was deemed kitsch, some amateur collectors rescued paintings from shops and auctions. Those pieces are now worth a mint – but it was never about the money
In the early 1960s, Andrew Lloyd Webber, while a pupil at Westminster School, came across an unframed canvas in a shop on the Fulham Road and instantly fell in love with it. The painting, or at least what he could see of it through a thick film of dirt, showed a slumbrous young woman, swathed in diaphanous hot orange, sprawled heavily across a sofa, the sky molten behind her. The owner of the shop – it would be pushing it to call it a gallery – told his young customer that the painting was by a former president of the Royal Academy, Lord Leighton. Schoolboy Lloyd Webber didn't have the £50 necessary to buy the grubby canvas and his grandmother, when beseeched to cough up the cash, growled: “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat.” Instead, Flaming June went to the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, from where it was recently granted a rare exeat. In recent weeks it has been making a guest appearance at Leighton House, the grand studio-mansion in Holland Park where Frederic Leighton lived and worked for the last three decades of his life. The painting, long primped back to luminous loveliness, is now worth … well, no one will say exactly, probably because no one really knows, but it must be multiples of millions.
Like any endlessly repeated story, the discovery of Flaming June after 60 years in hiding has acquired the patina of a fairytale, with the painting cast as a princess disguised in dirty rags and Lloyd Webber as the heroic prince who realises her true worth. But he wasn't the only young knight in that psychedelic decade who embarked on a quest to rescue the despised art of the previous century. Rob Dickins, subsequently chairman of Warner Music UK, was another creative mogul in the making who took to haunting country house sales and obscure provincial auctions in the hope of finding something wonderful buried among the dismal junk. The museum curator turned newspaper critic Richard Dorment was another, as was Richard Ormond, soon to become 19th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery.