My Home: Alessandro Raho, portrait artist

It was just another south-London ex-council flat - until the portrait artist Alessandro Raho started swapping works with friends to add a little gloss
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The Independent Online

Alessandro Raho, 35, was commissioned to paint a portrait of Dame Judi Dench last year by the National Portrait Gallery. His collectors include Damien Hirst, and he has shown in Tokyo, New York, and Salzburg. He lives in south London, with his wife Catherine, a curator

I was born in the Bahamas and lived there for the first two years of my life. Then in Austria and then in Kent. When I studied painting at Goldsmiths College I lived in a flat in Bexleyheath. I have always liked south London.

My home is on the third floor of a former council block in the bustling area of Borough. I'm not fazed by living in a council building. It was on the market for two days before we bought it, back in the summer.

My wife and I had been looking for nearly a year, and seeing all manner of dismal places - a lot of property-developed flats, where people have tried to turn a one-bedroom flat into two or make the absolute most of any minimal space.

That is one of the great things about council buildings - they have been designed with some sort of social policy. You come in the front door, you have a roomy kitchen, a good sitting room, a study, a bathroom and then three decent-sized bedrooms upstairs. It works in a utilitarian way, and it has a park directly below it. We paid £285,000, which, for a three-bedroom flat in central London, I think is an incredible bargain.

The flat is pretty much of an empty shell right now. I don't mind having my own work up in the flat. I also have a lot of friends' work; it is great being able to swap things with other artists. My wife and I just got married so we are in a transitional stage. We got some wonderful wedding presents though, including a transparent glass teapot from my first art dealer, Maureen Paley. It is so elegant-looking; I think I shall have to get some very special tea for it.

One of my favourite paintings here is by Alex Katz, who has always had a profound influence on me. It has striking colours and I was overawed to get it as a swap, when my art dealer in Salzburg kindly agreed to exchange it for some of my work a few years ago. Another interesting piece is an Olympic Games poster by Lucy McKenzie. My wife likes her a lot, and believes she will probably be the next Tracey Emin.

Up till now we have spent most of our money on clothes, books, records and going out. It will be quite a shock now to sink everything into the flat. We are planning to get an architect and re-work the roomplan.

My wife adores designer clothes. I painted her in a blue satin-silk Yves Saint-Laurent suit, which is still on the hanger upstairs. We had to buy it at the full price, but that was all part of the art project; of course, the gallery reimbursed me. She looked amazing in it and it was a wonderful painting. The suit itself is a work of art and is beautiful just on the hanger. She also loves jackets by Chloé and shoes by Jimmy Choo. I am not so designer-crazed, but I do like buying books and records. I used to always paint with music on, but now I paint in silence.

One of the bedrooms upstairs is completely full of books from floor to ceiling. I have been collecting books on art for about 15 years. I could never part with them. I think I must have every single book on David Hockney. The books are an integral part of my research. When I painted Judi Dench's portrait for the National Portrait Gallery I looked at a lot of portrait books, especially those of Cecil Beaton, whose work I found very inspiring.

It was an amazing experience painting such an iconic figure. Sarah Howgate at the National Portrait Gallery had been looking for contemporary artists to work on commissioned portraits and went to the Alison Jacques Gallery, where she saw my work. Strangely, they thought I mentioned Dame Judi, and I thought they did. Painting commissions is not my usual practice - it had only happened once before. However, it is a process I would love to continue with.

I was brought up in a council house by my mother, and I remember it was very exciting when we got the first council house as we had been living in places without our own front door and then suddenly we had our own place. It was a big step when she bought it though. She went through turmoil deciding whether or not she could afford such a commitment, as it could have been catastrophic if she didn't manage to meet all the payments.

One of the best things about this area is that it has a wonderful history. You can stumble across some very special gardens. The Red Cross Garden on Red Cross Way is a real treasure find in the middle of the city. It is full of amazing plants and trees. The antiques market is another interesting place and breakfast on Bermondsey Street at the Bermondsey Kitchen is my favourite way to start the day.

Also the best Indian restaurant I've ever eaten at, Simply Indian on Tabard Street, is right near here, so takeaways arrive in 10 minutes. For the moment I am very excited at all the possibilities we have with our flat. Borough is a really interesting place to live, and it is great to be so close to the Tate Modern, where my wife works. We always seem to have artists popping by, so much so that one of our artist friends has renamed our flat Tate Local.

Alessandro Raho, Alison Jacques Gallery (