LONDON – Last week I had the pleasure of attending a private viewing of A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House and rarely have a seen an exhibition so in-keeping with its surroundings. The exhibition shows just part of the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, one of Mexico’s most prominent businessmen and a great enthusiast for Victorian art. I believe that I can claim to have introduced Senõr Simón to Leighton House, the former home of Frederick Lord Leighton, now wonderfully restored to be a time-capsule of when it was the home and studio of the then President of the Royal Academy and painter of masterpieces such as Flaming June, The Daphnephoria and Captive Andromache.

I had mentioned to Senõr Simón the opening of an exhibition of highlights from another important collection of Victorian pictures – that of John Schaeffer – on view at Leighton House in 2013. I quickly found myself taking Senõr Simón for his first visit to Leighton House and giving an impromptu tour around the gallery – it was such a pleasure to show him one of my favourite places.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus from 1888, currently on display at London's Leighton House as part of the exhibition A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. Courtesy The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert.

The stand-out work in A Victorian Obsession is The Roses of Heliogabalus painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1888 for Sir John Aird, a man who like Senõr Simón made a fortune in large-scale business ventures (one of his achievements was building the Aswan Dam and another moving the Crystal Palace to south London). This painting has an entire gallery devoted to it – it is a triumph of painting: meticulously detailed, cinematic in the intensity of its narrative, wonderfully decadent and exquisitely, darkly beautiful. I had never seen it before and could have stared at it all evening. 

Our sale of British and Irish Art features another example of Alma-Tadema’s work that was commissioned by Aird – A Bachante. In our picture the red-haired model Marion Tattershall (later wife of the grandson of Carl Faberge) is dancing as part of an orgiastic festival to the God of Wine and Excess. She closely resembles the bacchante in the background of The Roses of Heliogabalus and the roses in the hair of her companions also link the two pictures. Painted almost 20 years after The Roses of Heliogabalus it demonstrates the enduring friendship between the artist and his patron and also the artist’s adherence to the theme of ritualistic revelry.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Bacchante. Estimate £60,000–80,000. To be offered at Sotheby's London in the British & Irish Art auction on 10 December.

Another link between A Victorian Obsession and our December sale is the pastel version of Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia owned by Senõr Simon, which predates the watercolour version of the composition to be offered this December. Again we see the opulent and exotic sensuality of a flame-haired maiden cast in the role of a Classical ideal and surrounded by red roses. At Leighton House the gallery in which The Roses of Heliogabalus is hung is perfumed with the heady aroma of Jo Malone scent to evoke the delicious perfume that suffocated the diners at Emperor Heliogabalus’ banquet – a warning that roses can be dangerous in Victorian paintings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Venus Verticordia from 1868. Estimate £1–1.5 million. British & Irish Art, Sotheby's London.

Simon Toll is a specialist in the Victorian and Irish Art department, Sotheby’s London.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection
Leighton House
12 Holland Park Road
London W14 8LZ