Brave new art dealers

A new generation of specialist art dealers is making its mark, capitalising on lower rents and gaps in the market. Clive Aslet meets the rising stars.

Later this year, Adrian Pett’s Chelsea gallery, Darnley Fine Art, will be mounting a first. Although travel posters from the 1920s have been steadily appreciating in value as nostalgia for the age of steam gathers intensity, never before has the artwork from which they were made been put on display. Often, railway companies would seem to have junked such art as having served its purpose once the posters had been made. This gives the original paintings, with their bold and simplified shapes and colours, a special value for the collector, who will recognise them as rarities whose content captures the mood of the moment. Sir Norman Wilkinson, who is represented by no fewer than seven generously proportioned oils, may not be a name to conjure with now-his knighthood was not for services to art, but for inventing the Razzle Dazzle camouflage for ships during the First World Was- but could be soon.

Now 34, Mr Pett, who began dealing at the age of 15, is one of a number of young dealers who have recently opened their doors to the public. What? At a time when the art market seems to have followed the example of a migrating swallow in heading inexorably south? Yes, these men and women have not only defied conventional wisdom, but show every appearance of prospering from doing so. In Mr Pett’s case, the key has been to specialise, not least in subject areas that have a strong international appeal. Having worked for the Mathaf Gallery in Motcomb Street, which centres on Middle Eastern art, for seven years, he has been in a position to develop something of a corner in David Roberts, the 19th-century watercolourist whose views of scenes on the Nile were published in the 247 lithographs of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (1842-49). It may be that the prices of Roberts’s work are likely to perform steadily rather than dazzle, but there will always be people who want to be reminded of the places to which they travelled, or where they live.

Jamie Rountree is pleased to have opened Rountree Fine Arts at 118, Fulham Road, London, at a time of economic turbulence. When he left Christie’s, where he had been head of maritime art, he was able to get a lease on favourable terms. “It now costs a lot less to get some decent space than it did three years ago,” he opines. Like Mr Pett, he has honed his offering, as can be seen at a glance in this bright, modern gallery. Spaniels, racehorses, Farnham Castle with a game of bowls in the foreground, British shops pounding the French, a washy view of Eastbourne bay before the Victorians got at it- these are the English School, sporting and marine paintings that are his passion. He doesn’t pretend it is a progressive taste, admitting “it’s less fashionable to collect now than it was”. On the other hand, in times of austerity, “people stay with what they know. Prices tend to be steady; never astronomical but never dropping too much”. Collectors in what, until recently, was the soar-away field of contemporary art, which has plunged in value, may feel this more staid approach has its merits. It may also reassure individuals who have decided to put some of their savings into art, on the basis that they can enjoy their purchases (which is more than can be said of shares).

Although plenty of older dealers still operate in this territory, there are opportunities for someone who is more attuned to the modern world: a third of Rountree Fine Art’s sales comes through the internet. Marine art has, as have the Middle Eastern views of Roberts, an international following, whether it’s among Nelson enthusiasts, who pit their collecting eyes to the telescope around the anniversary of Trafalgar, or dedicated yachts-men, fascinated by the finer points of rigging. For the former, Mr Rountree has Thomas Whitcombe’s The Battle of the Saintes, showing Rear-Admiral Hood capturing the French flagship, for the latter, a dashing scene of William Tennant’s cutter yachts The Dart scything through rough seas off Gibraltar, painted by Nicholas Pocock in 1801.

The ultimate international art object must be a rare map or atlas. It is a field in which Daniel Crouch, based for the time being in his home city of Oxford, but expecting to open in the West End later this year, is making his own. Strategically, it’s a good choice; antique maps and atlases have “been under-valued in recent years, but the market is picking up. People are more interested in places and travel”, Mr Crouch tells me. “They also respect books, and appreciate them a lot.”

Books can furnish a modern room rather more comfortably than some other kinds of art, be it a traditional, oak-built library or, in the case of an art-dealer client who collects Cornish maps, a highly modern space that could also contain a Damien Hirst. Clients of Daniel Crouch Rare Books are worldwide: generally English-speaking, but genuinely global. One would obviously not be so fatuous as to suggest that maps might be a male preserve- Mr Crouch is quick to point out that he has one female client. It can’t be a surprise, however, to discover that collectors tend to be over 40. After all, a rare map or atlas is, as Mr Crouch puts it, “a definition of luxury”.

Like Mr Crouch, Jenna Burlingham has established herself in the land where she grew up. Kingsciere, the village where, with backing, she converted a second-hand book shop into a gallery last year, may only be small, but this part of the world – north Hampshire – is short of market towns and buyers, from as far as Winchester and London think that it’s worth the travelling time to find her. Modern British is the theme, with works from the Newlyn and Euston Road Schools, plus Elisabeth Frink prints, but although works at the top end may cost £20,000-£50,000, she delights in introducing would be collectors to “original, unique, serious” pieces, often from local artists, that can be had for as little as £200. “The market is there”, she says. “Fortunately, I know it well, having worked for 16 years at Philips and the Offer Waterman, so I already had continuity with buyers when I opened a premise with my own name over the door.”

Celia Tobin – or rather, the Celias Tobin, as this is a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law enterprise, run by two Tobins who share the same name – have identified a different niche. At 29, Celia belle fille found herself about to get married, together with many friends. This raised the question of wedding presents, an area of retail that is – given that marriages happen in all economic weathers-surely recession-proof. And a well-chosen antique is more resonant than a saucepan from a department store list. As both Celia and her husband, Guy, were habitual collectors, the amalgamation of their houses left quite a few charming objects yet to be placed. The surplus established the website Off the List, offering pretty bibelots and glassware at prices from £30 to £1,000. When I call, Guy has been put to work in silver polishing gloves to buff up an 1860s tray that looks George IV; a Tobin baby can be heard in the background. Off the List’s presents don’t come with a guarantee of domestic bliss, but they will certainly add charm to the new households that are their end destinations. And that must be a blessing in itself.

Off the List 01295 660423;

Rou… Fine Art 020-7370 3939;

Burlingham 01635 298855;

Fine Art 020-8288 9094;

D… Crouch 07766 751391;