Art is for the street-wise

Got a million dollars (or just a couple of hours) to spare? Geraldine Norman gives an art lover's guide to Bond Street

The British don't make proper use of Bond Street. What does the name of the elegant Mayfair thoroughfare suggest to the average British ear? Primarily clothes - expensive clothes - or Sotheby's auctions, or maybe Asprey's knick-knacks.

But Bond Street also contains Europe's densest concentration of important art galleries - and hardly anyone visits them. For an art lover, a couple of hours idling down Bond Street is as rewarding as a visit to the National Gallery or the historic British collection at the Tate. There aren't as many masterpieces, of course, but that is made up for by the constantly changing show. You can do the Bond Street galleries three or four times a year and always see different pictures.

At present you'll catch Hannibal Crossing the Alps, a painting by the 17th-century French artist Nicolas Poussin, which Agnew's has pulled out to coincide with the Poussin exhibition at the Royal Academy. The painting is modestly priced at $1.5m. You'll find Renoir and Pissarro at Richard Green's modern gallery and the spectacular Pieter Brueghel Calvary (£1.6m) among his Old Masters; there's a Bonington at Leger's, a Stubbs at Lane Fine Art, a theatrical Pompeo Batoni at Colnaghi's, and a brilliant 1935 painting of geraniums by Stanley Spencer at the Fine Art Society.

At Wildenstein's, you'll catch a charming exhibition of French 18th-century paintings and drawings on the theme of love, put together for Valentine's Day. Wildenstein's, founded in France in 1875, is now a spider's web that criss-crosses the globe with important galleries in New York and Tokyo; their secret stock of Old Masters is larger and more valuable than that of any other dealer; when they want to mount a French 18th-century exhibition, they just take some things out of the safe - The Love Letter, a ravishing little oil by Marguerite Grard, for instance. Grard was Jean Honor Fragonard's sister-in-law and favourite collaborator, and their work is often confused.

The British pay little attention to these aesthetic delights for two reasons. Firstly, there are not many British buyers; collecting art is not a means of social climbing in Britain. If you want to break into high society over here, buy a racehorse. The people who actually buy the pictures on offer in Bond Street are mainly foreign.

Secondly, ordinary members of the public are daunted by the grandiose, empty galleries, staffed by disapproving Sloanes. In most cases, the street door is locked and you have to press a buzzer to get in. "Lloyds insists we keep it locked," explains Christopher Foley of Lane Fine Art. "Otherwise they would require us to maintain three members of staff on each exhibition floor before issuing any insurance."

The oldest established galleries on the street are Colnaghi's, Agnew's and the Fine Art Society. Colnaghi's, which began life as a print-seller in Cockspur Street in 1784, arrived in Bond Street in 1911; the other two got there in 1876. Colnaghi's, however, no longer has any links with its roots. It trades in Old Master paintings and drawings, has branch galleries in New York and Paris and is owned by the German Oetke Group of food, hotel and shipping companies. Most of the Old Masters hanging there this week are Italian - including a charming drawing of dogs snuffling in an 18th-century landscape by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.

Agnew's, in contrast, is still run by the Agnew family. The large upstairs gallery is generally roped off between exhibitions but the downstairs space is well hung with pictures and there are small watercolour and sculpture galleries tucked in the front. There are no less than five Samuel Palmer watercolours hanging there right now, none dating from his mystic Shoreham period, but all of noted quality. The small but dramatic Italian Dawn is an echo of his honeymoon (£80,000).

Andrew Patrick, director of the Fine Art Society, proudly claims that his firm only deals in the kind of art it started out selling new some time between 1876 and today. In their first four years they showed Ruskin's collection of Turners and subsidised his arch-rival Whistler's retirement to Venice. There are still Whistler prints and drawings for sale and spectacular Victorian pictures by Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema - who both showed at the gallery. The huge space is hung in a postage-stamp style, cramming in as many pictures as possible. And there are always some notable paintings - their quality is probably the most reliable in Bond Street.

There's a marvellous Sir William Orpen self-portrait of around 1910 in the window this week. Orpen followed Sargent as Britain's most fashionable portrait painter; he is said to have been so ugly that he regarded self- portraits, of which he painted a large number, as a challenge. In this one he paints his reflection in a mirror placing a wreath of flowers round a statue of Cupid. The tools of his trade - paints, brushes, bottles of turps - are jumbled on the mantelpiece in front of it.

The other major gallery that peddles Victorian paintings is Christopher Wood, with premises on the second and third floors of Mallett's, the furniture dealers. Not only do you have to ring the bell but you have to march across the furniture emporium to take the lift. The paintings are worth it when you get there, currently dominated by a swirling belle poque portrait: Madame Jourdan by Giovanni Boldini.

Some galleries are more obviously "commercial" than others. Richard Green only has Old Masters that would appeal to rich private collectors - obviously decorative, of high quality and cleaned to a sparkling standard which renders the colours as bright as new. His Impressionists are aimed at the same kind of client; they are attractive but not museum class. And Frost and Reed offers a unique brand of contemporary and modern art - brightly coloured figurative painting, mostly in impressionist mode, by talented artists who haven't made it into art history books but sell like hot cakes in the Home Counties. There's something for everyone in Bond Street.

n Agnew's (0171-629 6176); Christopher Wood (0171-499 7411); Colnaghi's (0171-491 7408); Fine Art Society (0171-629 5116); Frost & Reed (0171- 629 2457); Lane Fine Art (0171-499 5020); Richard Green (0171-493 3939); Wildenstein's (0171-629 0602)

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