My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle may have been inspired by a real impoverished cockney girl turned Victorian actress, and her descendants could be living in south London, a researcher believes.

And the family, thought to be in Carshalton, may unknowingly be harbouring priceless paintings by a famous Victorian artist who formed the basis of the character of Eliza's mentor, Professor Henry Higgins.

Suffolk-based writer Ann Gander is researching the possibility that the playwright George Bernard Shaw based characters in his play Pygmalion - which later became the musical My Fair Lady - on real people.

According to her theory, the fictional relationship between Professor Henry Higgins and his protégé Eliza Doolittle was drawn from the real life pairing of Sir Frederic Leighton and Ada Pullan.

Just as Professor Higgins trains Eliza to behave like a lady, the real life Sir Frederic - who was a famous painter - also paid for the low-born Ada to be tutored.

Through her research, Mrs Gander has identified Ada Pullan's last known descendant as Olive Maude Turner, who died unmarried in 1992 and lived in Stanley Park Road.

She is now anxious to trace any relatives of Mrs Turner who may have inherited documents which may shed light on Ada and Sir Frederic's relationship.

Alternatively, Ada's surviving family may have acquired works of art by the painter which are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Mrs Gander said: "I have an unpublished memoir by an art critic which mentions Leighton and Ada and I became interested in the possibility that this was the basis of Pygmalion.

"It seems to be a widely held thought among people who know about Leighton's work and it really does seem to fit in place.

"I am hoping to write a book on the subject but Leighton was quite a secretive person and a lot of his letters have disappeared.

"Through the Pullan family, I am hoping to find documents about him.

"I am hoping to contact them before they chuck them in the skip and they may have paintings by Leighton worth a fortune."

Ada Pullan came from a poor background but became a late 19th century West End theatre star thanks to the patronage of Sir Frederic Leighton.

A wealthy painter and president of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederic paid for Ada, who used the stage name Dorothy Dene, to have drama and elocution lessons as well as hair and beauty makeovers.

In return for this generosity, Ada agreed to pose naked for the artist and was the model for several celebrated works including Flaming June and The Vestal.

Both the painter and his muse were contemporaries of George Bernard Shaw, who attended each of Ada's opening nights.

It is the fact the playwright knew of the pair, plus their similarity to the fictional Eliza and Professor Higgins, which has convinced Mrs Gander they were his inspiration.

"It was just a story that fascinated me," she said. "As soon as I picked up on it I thought this has got to be told and the more I read, the more it interested me.

"Everybody loves Pygmalion and My Fair Lady but if they knew they were real people it would be of even more interest. As far as I'm concerned, Ada was one of the early people who wanted fame and thought it would bring her happiness. Ultimately, I don't think it did."

To contact Mrs Gander email or call 01986 875999.