Victorian icon may conceal secret of squire's daughter may be hidden in Victoria

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One of the most celebrated icons of Victorian art, Frederic Leighton's 1895 painting Flaming June, may not be what it is thought to be.

It was believed for years to be a portrayal of the artist's favourite model, Dorothy Dene, to whom he left pounds 10,000 in his will when he died 100 years ago. But on the eve of the Royal Academy's London retrospective of Lord Leighton's work, an academic has suggested that the model is not Dene, a poor child from the East End of London made good by modelling, but Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a prosperous country squire.

He suggests that Lloyd, who had fallen on hard times, was discreet about her modelling because it was not thought to be reputable.

In the February edition of the art magazine Apollo, Dr Martin Postle suggests that Lloyd was the inspiration for Flaming June. He said: "She sat at the time when Flaming June was painted and she mentioned other work she had posed for between 1893 and 1895, like Lachrymae and Atalanta. And she looks far more like Flaming June than Dorothy Dene."

Dr Postle, who is preparing an exhibition on the subject of "The Artist's Model", said the Sunday Express interviewed Mary Lloyd in 1933 at her garret home in west London, where she admitted to having posed for Leighton, as well as for contemporaries, such as William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne- Jones and Ford Madox Brown. She did not mention Flaming June, but it is only in the last 40 years that the painting has acquired its classic status.

She kept her modelling secret until this interview, shortly after which she is believed to have died in poverty.

Robin Simon, editor of Apollo, said: "Modelling for artists was not thought to be a respectable profession. The model might also be the artist's mistress."

However, Julia Findlater, curator at Leighton House, in Holland Park, west London, which is showing a theatrical presentation of the artist's life until April - with a live model as Flaming June as the centrepiece - said: "As a curator of Leighton's work, I'm always keen to see new information, but the evidence just isn't there."