The beautiful Dorothy Dene, naked apart from a length of transparent white gauze, is returning to a London house she knew very well, in a spectacular collection of Victorian art being lent by a quiet billionaire who is one of the world's foremost private collectors of art.
The paintings are owned by Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, who was born in Spain but brought up in Mexico, where he made a fortune in telecommunications. At the last count – he is still buying – he owned well over 3,000 paintings including works by Goya, El Greco, Dalí, Rubens, Van Gogh and Monet.
Less well known is his collection of works by all the major artists of late 19th-century Britain, pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and later more academic painters, hugely popular and fabulously expensive in their day, including Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, Edward Poynter and the grandest of them all, Frederic Leighton.
Leighton, who is buried in a magnificent tomb in St Paul's Cathedral, was the first artist to be given a peerage, and the collection is coming on loan from November to the museum in his opulent former London home and studio. Many of the works were last seen in the UK at the Royal Academy in the 1890s, and some once hung in the house. Leighton knew most of the artists personally, owned works by many, and was intimate with the beautiful model for several of the paintings.
Daniel Robbins, curator of Leighton House Museum, said: "This is such an important exhibition for this museum: some of these paintings were once on these walls, and the works by Leighton himself haven't been here since they left his studio to go straight to display at the Royal Academy. These pictures will really resonate with this building."
Several of the paintings show the beautiful model Dorothy Dene, who appears in one as the naked nymph Crenaia. She was a frequent visitor to the house, where the models had their own discreet staircase, leading to a room warmed by a fireplace where they removed their clothes.
Some art historians thought Leighton was gay – his handsome friend, the Italian painter Giovanni Costa, was the only guest recorded as staying overnight – while others believed he never had a lover of either sex. Robbins, however, said recent research suggested Dene was much more than just a model. Costa sourly referred to her as the artist's "wife" in a recently found letter.
Dene became a moderately successful actor after Leighton paid for language lessons; she accompanied him to society events, and may have been the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. She was at Leighton's deathbed in 1896, and he left her the then enormous sum of £3,000.
Robbins said the paintings reflected Pérez Simón's tastes. "He buys what he loves and he has been buying these pictures – often highly decorative and featuring beautiful women – since they were very much out of fashion. I think people in the art world didn't quite put it together and work out where they were all going. It will be extraordinary to see them back in this country, and I hope many will come to see them and discover our museum for the first time too."
Robbins will be putting the entire permanent collection of the house – a Victorian fantasy of an Arabian interior, built around a tiled fountain courtyard – into store to make room for the loans.
The dining room will have a display explaining the sinisterly voluptuous painting by Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, a sensation when it was first exhibited in 1888. "I think many viewers just see the beautiful petals, and miss what's really going on," Robbins said. The historian Edward Gibbons said the Roman emperor Heliogabalus, who according to legend created a fake brothel where he offered his own services as a female costumed prostitute, "abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury". In the painting his dinner guests are not wallowing but being smothered to death in the cascade of petals.
Pérez Simón was born in Spain, but emigrated to Mexico with his family when he was five. In a rare and unusually intimate interview with Paris Match he revealed that he fell in love with art aged 15 while "in the full crisis of adolescence", when he bought two reproductions from the Prado in Madrid. He bought the first original paintings when he married his wife, Josefina, in the 1970s – they are now grandparents – and they had so little money their flat was unfurnished except for a bed.
Many of the paintings normally hang in Pérez Simón's homes, though he lends lavishly to museums all over the world. Typically, although Robbins has discovered that the collector has visited Leighton House, he has never met him.
A Victorian Obsession: the Pérez Simón collection, Leighton House Museum, London, 14 November 2014-29 March 2015
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