I f you are a fan of BBC TV's Antiques Roadshow you are likely to recognise Philip Mould. An authority on paintings, he has appeared in nine recent programmes.

"They are coming out as we speak, and have been great fun. I've encountered a dozen varieties of regional accent, seen all sorts of weird and interesting church halls and venues, and enjoyed hanging out there for 48 hours," Philip said.

"We all meet up and have a dinner and drinks the night before - it is a very convivial group of people.

"I've also found that it has been a tremendous opportunity to bring to the Antiques Roadshow something that I like doing, which is to combine art and social history. I try to plunder the queue for any interesting portraits or pictures that have a sociological dimension, so that I can talk about the story behind the story."

Philip is, by profession, an art dealer whose area of expertise is historical portraiture, and in particular the English face. For over two decades he has built a reputation as a specialist in this field and, last month he opened a new ground-floor gallery in London's Mayfair, devoted to his passion.

"It was an old car showroom, originally, in Dover Street - quite an innovative way of showing Old Masters," he said. "Something that pictures need in their presentation is oxygen, they need air around them. We will have one of the largest commercial art galleries in the West End and the space has given us the opportunity to release a lot of pictures that might have been cramped elsewhere."

I spoke to Philip at his Cotswold home, a deliciously picturesque, stone-built manor of 1627, once owned by the writer Penelope Lively. For the interior he has held back some of the paintings that have passed through his hands, any "battered but thematically appropriate pictures" that can help tell the story of the building.

"We're talking about provincial pictures that would have been found in a 16th or 17th-century English manor house. I've got a couple of portraits of Charles I, and Charles II up there too. I also balance the monarchy with the odd, semi-undressed mistress like Moll Davis, who was one of the rivals to Nell Gwynne. And there is a little self-portrait by one of the leading portrait painters of that period, Godfrey Kneller.

"I've broken it up every now and then with a little bit of 21st century.I have a small work by an artist who painted our family, one of the most exciting portrait painters around today, Stuart Pearson Wright.

"He stayed with us for a week and painted us up the hill with the house behind us in the manner of an 18th-century English landscape. It was great fun and he was very good company," Philip recalled.

Philip embarked on his career as a dealer at an early age. "My childhood was spent collecting things like stamps, fruit labels from melons and various other trivia; and later silver teaspoons and shoe buckles. I dealt and traded in bits of silver which I used to find very often in Liverpool near where I was born. I used to buy stuff in the antique shops of Toxteth and take the booty on the C22 bus to Chester, to the more posh surroundings. I started when I was about 13 or 14. I was on Magpie, the children's TV programme, with my collection of shoe buckles.

"I had a dual passion from childhood. Antiques and wild plants. When I was very young my father gave me a vasculum, a metal case that I hung around my neck to bring back specimens. I've always felt a very strong comparison between the way that you encounter a wild flower in the countryside, identify and record it, and tell people what you've found. I find that very similar to finding a painting in an auction that may be mis-catalogued, cleaning it, restoring it and then re-endorsing its relevance by proclaiming its existence."

While studying the History of Art at the University of East Anglia, Philip began dealing in paintings in earnest. His older brother was also an art dealer and, in his early 20s, Philip started working with him from a borrowed space in someone else's gallery.

"I was my brother's secretary and I would do everything from the petty cash to the message on the answering machine. I always wrote a bit, and I went to the National Broadcasting School for three or four months where I learnt to be a radio journalist.

"I got a really great break when I was about 27, inasmuch as I was commissioned to write and present a six-part series for Channel 4 on the history of the English face. That launched both my business, and also an interest in communicating the delights of what I sell."

In his early 30s Philip published a book called Sleepers, about discovering lost Old Masters, and won attention for discoveries of his own.

"When I first started I didn't have the money to be able to buy great works of art by Gainsborough, Reynolds or Van Dyck, which now I deal with all the time. The only way was to seek out examples where their work had become muted and disguised.

"Maybe they had been overpainted, maybe they were extremely dirty. It might also be that the artist was painting in an atypical way, under the influence of another. As I became more and more focused on the English face, I got to know my 30 or 40 key artists.

"Discovering is a gift given to anybody who specialises and focuses. It is not to do with brilliance but with channelled concentration in a narrow area of the otherwise large field of western art. The fruits of that have been to come across, every couple of months, an artist's work that has somehow missed the cataloguer's gaze," he said.

"And so a combination of starting young, a relatively high-profile and a tunnel vision meant that by my late 20s, early 30s, I had really quite a good business. I was now on my own - I'd left my brother - and founded what I named, rather grandly, Historical Portraits Limited."

Philip's current catalogue is immensely impressive, and he speaks with both passion and penetrating intelligence about his calling.

"This country produced some of the greatest portrait painters who ever lived, people like Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and Hogarth," he said."But also, probably more importantly, England lured to its shores the greatest portrait painters that Europe had ever produced. People like Holbein and Van Dyck came because of the English people's love of self-representation.

"It has something to do with our feudal history, it places us rather clearly and lucidly in our class structure.

"It also has something to do, I think, with the Reformation when we were starved of religious self-expression. How does a pictorially orientated culture express itself when it has been denied the language of religious art? Portraiture is a damn good way."

Philip showed me one of the pictures on his own walls. "It is an artist's studio - a provincial English interior scene of the 17th century," he explained. "I found this in a sale some years back. It was very dirty, but when we cleaned it we found two things which I find immensely appealing.

"The first is, it shows with loving attention to detail, an austere provincial manor house interior, with its leaded glass windows and dark fireplace; but better than that, whoever lives in this grand provincial house is a portrait painter.

"The walls are lined with unframed canvasses of leading figures of the day. I think there is the odd king and queen, provincial society figures and also, what I'm absolutely convinced is a self-portrait. There are two versions, one on the right and one on the left, and this points to something people often forget.

"Many of the pictures we have discovered which were formerly thought to be by followers, were versions by artists. Prior to photography, if you got a good sitting or did a good picture the high likelihood was that you would replicate it.

"You get, for example, 40 or 50 original pictures by the same artist of George Washington, or Horatio Nelson, or Charles II. Equally, if you had a good family portrait, there were other members and descendants who would like that image. So artists would create multiple versions'.

Among the paintings on display at his London gallery is Portrait of Anne, Mrs Charles Hawkins, with her children Caesar and Louisa Anne 1776-78 (pictured left).

Philip said: "What I love about 18th-century English portraits is that they often use the precedents of religious painting, and the Virgin Mary with a child as a sort of template of how to do an aristocratic English lady with her babies.

"If you look in the account books you realise that George Romney, who painted this, had numerous sittings, because clearly these kids wouldn't keep still.

"Nonetheless, he has been able to produce a demure painting which in a very subliminal way evokes Madonnas of the 15th century - and yet has got all the classicism, restraint, protocol and language of a perfect 18th-century scene.

"This is the sort of picture now which is increasingly bought by city people who have got second houses in the country and want largish-scale classic English portraiture to fill all those spaces."

I suggested that opening a gallery in Mayfair must involve quite an investment of faith.

"Short of getting married, it was the biggest commitment of my life! And what has been really thrilling is that almost before the doors had opened people were knocking on the window, seeing the gallery establish itself and saying: I didn't know you existed please show me more'."

Philip Mould Historical Portraits is situated at 29 Dover Street, London W1S 4NA.

Philip Mould's Sleepers: In Search of Lost Old Masters, was published in paperback as The Trail of Lot 163, 4th Estate, London