At home with Belgravia Gallery’s Anna Hunter and Laura Walford
- Credit: Archant
The mother and daughter duo were responsible for launching the art work of Nelson Mandela and their Cranleigh gallery used to host George Michael, Elton John and Tina Turner in its secret recording studio
Fortune House, close to the Downs Link path just beyond Cranleigh and overlooking the magnificent vista of Holmbury Hill is an elegant Victorian family home. Its name could well relate to the chance or luck of its breathtaking position. But actually, its origins reveal a link to Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, best known for stealing the secrets of China’s tea trade and in turn toppling the country’s monopoly on the much-loved drink.
It was Fortune’s son who built the house, and in a lasting legacy to his father, two statuesque Trachycarpus fortunei or windmill palms, brought to this country by Fortune in the 1800s sit framing that spectacular view. Today, Fortune House is home to Belgravia Gallery, the brainchild of Anna Hunter and more recently run day-to-day by her daughter Laura Walford.
Unlike the stuffy environment of a traditional art gallery, Fortune House is a warm and relaxed space - a family home that just happens to house some of the world’s most prized works of art. Laura explains that it was always her mother’s intention to be welcoming, approachable and informal. “When she opened her first gallery in London, Anna put down carpet,” Laura explains. “It was a way of giving the space a more homely and cosy feel. But actually her real goal was to strip away any intimidation of visiting a gallery and try to demystify art.”
Belgravia Gallery came about almost by chance 30 years ago. Anna was a single mother to three young children, struggling on a teacher’s salary and driven by a need to enhance her income. She started a tiny business publishing works of Royal Academy art and then she took a gamble and wrote a letter to HRH The Prince of Wales suggesting his watercolour paintings could be made into signed lithographs to raise money for his Charitable Foundation. It’s a collaboration that has endured and raised many millions for good causes ever since.
Belgravia Gallery – firstly located in Belgravia before moving to a new home in Mayfair – became a thriving platform for emerging and established artists, showcasing various art forms from lithographs to paintings, sculptures to fine art and photography. Laura joined her mother in the business in 2001 and has been a pivotal part of the gallery’s success.
As well as the royal links with HRH The Prince of Wales, Belgravia Gallery boasts another notable association with the artwork of the late Nelson Mandela. Anna and Laura were responsible for launching Mandela’s work selling limited edition signed lithographs and some originals based on his sketches of Robben Island. Not only has his work has gone on to raise valuable funds for charitable causes, but just as importantly, Laura points out, “it’s art that makes you think and reflect.”
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In 2017, Belgravia Gallery relocated to the Surrey Hills and its current premises, Fortune House, which is home to Laura, her husband Adam and their two children. “We knew that we wanted to move out of London and all roads led to Surrey,” Laura explains. Anna was already living in nearby Ewhurst, having moved from her former home at Chinthurst Hill in Wonersh so the move for family and business made perfect sense.
Falling in love with Fortune House at first sight, Laura describes it as slightly dated and faded but with bags of potential. “The house has a wonderful light feel with high ceilings and plenty of original details. It felt solid and while we wanted to keep all the classic features, we also wanted to add our own contemporary twist,”
The result is fantastically tasteful. A triumphant tribute to the Farrow & Ball colour chart, but of course – mainly – a space to display the many works of art it houses. There is art wherever you look, something that Laura describes as entirely intentional. “I always try to encourage clients that you can have art everywhere. Whether it’s in the bathroom or the kitchen or a forgotten corridor, mixing styles displays personality and adds to the overall feel of a home.”
The home setting this gallery provides is without doubt a testament to how art and sculptures can mingle seamlessly around the house and definitely inspires even someone with little knowledge of the art world to dip their toes.
Perhaps the most impressive place in the house and Laura’s favourite of all is the newly configured dining room. Capturing that wonderful view through its imposing windows, it’s a light, bright space housing a huge Cattelan Italia ceramic topped table encircled with Love Your Home Madison armchairs upholstered in a lagoon coloured velvet. On one wall is ‘Petals on the Wind’ – a giant acrylic on canvas by American abstract impressionist Monroe Holder, while on another is ‘Serengeti Migration’, a mixed media piece by Jan Coutts, known for her portrayals of the animals that inhabit the African plains. “We try to exhibit what we really love,” Laura explains. “Different styles can definitely work together if you just consider their tones, textures and scales and somehow find a balance.”
Neither Laura nor Anna describe themselves as artists, instead Anna admits she would rather take the talent of others and supply the transformation and vision required to find a piece its rightful home.
There’s no doubt that Anna in particular has the eye to spot a talent on the rise, and always keeps a radar out for new ones. In fact, the now highly-regarded and collectable artist Charlie Mackesy could be described as one of Anna’s protegés. Meeting him through her church over 20 years ago, she recognised his budding future and started exhibiting his artwork, way before he’d achieved the notoriety he has established today.
Since its move to the Surrey Hills, Belgravia Gallery is also supportive of the flourishing artists based practically on its doorstep. The pair champion the likes of Cranleigh-based Charlotte Aiken who impresses with her pieces centring on the notion of infinity. Jan Erika is another Surrey-based multi-media artist known for her bold play on shape and colour. A whole new raft of local clients has also flocked to the gallery, secure in the knowledge that Anna and Laura have the eye and the connections to find the perfect piece of art for their homes.
Both mother and daughter have a down-to-earth attitude to art. While you are just as likely to find a vintage Matisse (there is a piece from what was his very last collection hanging in the upstairs hallway) nestling next to a Warhol or a work by Sir Peter Blake, there are absolutely no self-important pretensions here at Fortune House. Instead, the pair speak with a knowledge and enthusiasm for the art they exhibit. It’s an easy, approachable manner which removes any fear people may have around owning art. And while some of the higher price points may seem unreachable, there are other pieces which are well within a more modest budget. Laura even encourages her clients to appreciate the art in everyday life, “Enjoy your children’s art by having it framed and get plenty of family photos on the walls,” Laura enthuses.
The downside of having your home as its own working gallery is the art is naturally transient. Some pieces can come and go in a matter of days, while others stay a lot longer. But Laura picks one piece that she would never let go. The Colin Caffell sculpture, ‘Unity’ was given to Laura by her mother on her 21st birthday and is understandably a work too precious to ever part with.
While both have an unmistakable love for the art they exhibit, there is another aspiration that fires this enduring passion. The Sebastian Hunter Memorial Trust was set up in 2002 by Anna in memory of her son, who tragically died when he was just 18 years old. Numerous projects in some of the poorest parts of India have been funded and supported by the foundation, in particular Seb’s School set up in Tamil Nadu. Daily, many young people use the various facilities provided and supported by the Trust, with donations and support continuing from Belgravia Gallery almost 20 years on. “Without a doubt, it’s the heart of our business,” Laura confides.
Alongside the artwork, there are many other secrets and treasures to be discovered at Fortune House. Not least the recording studio out the back, which has now been converted into a self-contained apartment. During the 1980s it hosted leading names from the music world such as George Michael, Elton John and Tina Turner. And while you can’t fail to be awestruck by the art around the house, it’s impossible not to be enthralled by the décor and soft furnishings too: William Morris prints on the walls, House of Hackney cushions, handembroidered curtains. In fact, while it clearly excels in exhibiting outstanding works of art, it’s fair to say that in Fortune House, Laura and Anna have also created their very own masterpiece.
- Find out more about news, events and exhibitions at www.belgraviagallery.com / www.sebsschool.org