There's an air of quiet defiance, a self-assured confidence captured in the likeness of a man who finds himself at the epicentre of an age of rebirth, of learning, literature, art and culture. Staring into the middle distance as though regarding this awakening with a reluctant curiosity, this is the portrait of a man at the centre of his own universe, a man who is getting to know his own mind. Gone is the darkness, the barbarous. Enlightened, he steps into the daylight as the world around him comes into bloom.
Painted in the 16th century at the height of the Italian Renaissance, the portrait of the Italian gentleman comes from the studio of Pietro Perugino, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and tutor to his most famous pupil Raphael. It was a studio that was one the first to see the development of painting in oil, and at five hundred years old, the portrait is without embellishment. "There's less ego in a panel portrait" says Mr Daniel Hunt, softly and with a diffident smile, director of the gallery which sits just off London's Sloane Square. His comment explaining quite simply and elegantly the "human-ness" and relatable quality evident in the painting.
"Renaissance portraiture brought realism, perspective, measurement and what was right in front of your nose back into art." says Mr Sandy Mallet. An artist, writer, curator and Daniel's accomplice in picture dealing for over five years. An affable, learned duo, neither Daniel nor Sandy could be considered to fit the archetypal image of the "Art Dealer" one is likely to entertain when considering the title. With Daniel in faded jeans, old black brogues and Sandy in a vintage Polo and shorts, it would seem academia - though its role is ever present in selection of works on display - is worn a lot like the cream linen blazer Daniel has thrown over the back of a battered Captain's Chair: lightly and informally.
Somewhat of a local landmark and sandwiched between the wings of the Sloane Club, with the Saatchi Gallery to the rear, Daniel Hunt Fine Art is a vision of gentrified grandeur. A red brick facade frames four large canopied windows that offer passers by welcome shade and an enticing light in which to gaze at a small selection of the fine works available for sale within, which includes a not insignificant portrait of a horse by Henry Barraud. One of a number of pieces which make up an impressive collection of Equine art, it reflects Daniel's long held interest for breeding and racing horses.
Moving into the secondary viewing room, the role of the horse in art finds a new form in the shape of a life-size wire and willow sculpture which stands proudly in the company of a portrait by Sir Alfred Munnings painted in 1919 entitled 'Return from the Nets' and a large painting in oil by the Count of Monpezat which depicts Princess de Joinville astride a stallion. Designed and created by Daniel's sixteen-year-old daughter, the striking sculpture shows a mature and confident grasp of proportion unique to the horse, which suggests a strong understanding and personal affection for the animal which can't be observed and learned from books and imagery alone, rather first-hand experience.
"She takes after her grandmother" says Daniel proudly, whose mother has been a sculptor all her life and a strong artistic influence on Daniel himself. Taking him around galleries from a young age, her creative compass has helped point Daniel in a direction that has seen him develop a discerning eye and heightened artistic sensitivity. "I was dealing in pictures from as early as fourteen" acknowledges Daniel, confessing as he does his criteria was to purchase "anything that winked at me".
A collector and self confessed addict for works by cubist painter Jean Varda for over twenty-five years, Daniel has been dealing in works by Old Master painters every day since. His deep love and life-long fascination for fine art has seen him create a gallery that could perhaps be best described as a modern day twist on the Studiolo of old. "To see art presented in this way offers a wonderful juxtaposition" offers Sandy with a warm smile, referring to the eccentric and somewhat quirky style of presentation that sees many paintings placed on the stairs which lead to the basement and the heart of operations where both Daniel and Sandy spend many hours researching, reading, completing stories and adding to the pages of others.
Remaining in the basement, a portrait of Georg Petel by the studio of Anthony van Dyck rests next to a strikingly simple sketch whose free-flowing, loose and boisterous style is instantly recognisable as a work by Picasso. "Done for restaurateur René Pous - he wasn't actually starving when he did this!" laughs Sandy. "Much more a present between friends and there's certainly an undeniable taste of art world legend woven into this work. Just imagine, the most famous of all modern artists sitting down to lunch with a legendary chef and friend, bringing out his pen to let it walk a wondrous line in pure Picasso style." Signed "Pour mon ami René Pous" it is one of two highly personal works in pencil and sits alongside a piece by Gustav Klimt that depicts two women sleeping.
"We need to find a new friend for Lawrence" quips Sandy having noticed newly available space next to a large portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence as we return to the main gallery. Painted in 1811, the oil on canvas - entitled "Anne, Portrait of a Lady" - is all the more curious because it is was intentionally half-finished with only the head and shoulders complete. Feeling not unlike a dreamy window into a moment in time now long gone, pencil lines sketch in where other parts of the composition would be, lending it an ethereal and somewhat modern twist.
"The husband of the sitter, Lady Ellenborough…" continues Sandy "…argued with Lawrence about the price of the work, so it was given to one of the sitter's friends, Miss Locker, in whose family it descended until now. Lord Ellenborough didn’t escape and had to pay Lawrence for a second, more formal portrait of his wife. This kind of treatment with its boudoir suggestiveness was one of Lawrence’s most inventive and modern contributions to portraiture." Pursuing the Royal connection to portraiture, Sandy and Daniel direct their attention to a four hundred and eighty year old portrait of Madeleine de Valois, Queen of Scots, whose slight and delicate nature would see her quest for love take her life in youth.
Attributed to Joos van Cleve - known also for having painted King Henry VIII - the portrait was likely one of a series of pieces commissioned by the French Royal family between 1535-6 where an alliance between France and Scotland brought about an agreement for a marriage which would link the two countries. With a fair complexion and slight frame, there’s an undeniable sense of fragility evident in the portrait of Madeleine. "In 1536 James V travelled to Paris to meet Mary of Bourbon but was to become smitten with her sister Madeleine. Her father Francois I was horrified, believing the Scottish weather too cold and sure to take the life of his fragile daughter. The two were wedded on the 1st of January 1537 arriving in Scotland seven days later. Less than a month afterwards ‘The Summer Queen’ died in her husband's arms not quite seventeen years old."
Like an ensemble drama, each piece of art is not without a cast of characters. Each with a role to play, they are drawn into orbit and in time become part of the fabric of a provincial tapestry woven by artists, their sitters and later, by collectors and dealers like Daniel and Sandy and ultimately their clients. In doing so, it would seem - as Sandy so aptly puts it - "Good art tells us as much about ourselves as it does the story attached".
Daniel Hunt Fine Art represents a rare and charming opportunity to purchase unique pieces by artists who have shaped the artistic landscape we traverse today. A retreat from the chaos of the city, a shrine to ideals and a romantic vision of a world now long gone, in the eyes of these gentleman dealers, there’s an integrity in permanence.