My Home: Mark Elder, conductor

This conductor has orchestrated a triumph of light, space and absolute tranquillity in his elegant Arts and Crafts home. Joey Canessa reports
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The Independent Online

Mark Elder, the music director of the Halle Orchestra, divides his time between a converted loft in Manchester and a five-bedroom house in north London, which he shares with his wife, Mandy, his daughter, Katie, and a cat.

Our house was built exactly 100 years ago, on land that once formed part of the estate of Southwood Court in London. All the houses were built at the same period in late Arts and Crafts style, so there is a wonderful consistency.

The road forms a loop, so it's not used as a cut-through and, as a result, it's blissfully tranquil. When I come back from Manchester or from a trip abroad I stand in the garden, listening, and never fail to be astonished by the quiet; I could almost believe I was deaf.

I was brought up locally and often passed very close to this road but, due to its position, never knew that it existed. It's a bit of a backwater, a secret part of London, with its own community of local characters.

We are only the second family to live in this house. It was inhabited by one family for 95 years and so has never been divided into flats and was in its original condition when we found it, apart from the damp and grotty bits. Three sisters lived here together, one living on each floor of the house. They all lived well into their nineties, a fact that they apparently attributed to the lack of central heating in the house and to eating three vegetables with every meal. One of them was a piano teacher, so there's always been music in this house.

Our arrival here was greeted with some cynicism by the neighbours. We brought a team of builders in with us as the house needed every conceivable repair, and people felt understandably threatened. The building project was scheduled to be completed in six months but overran to 10.

The house was full of original features, including beautifully wide floorboards, without even one creak. When the decorators stripped the wallpaper, they were astonished to find only one layer of paper, with perfect plaster underneath, and a date written in pencil: April 1948, presumably the last time that the house was decorated.

We have tried to create a 21st-century house which respects the beauty and proportions of the original Edwardian design. Where things have needed replacing, we have restored them as they were. The stained glass in the front door all had to be replaced but we have matched the colours and recreated the original.

A remarkable feature of our house is its width, celebrated by a six-bay window at the front, flooding the sitting room with light. This width also allows for the unusual design of the staircase, which does not run up the side of the house but, from the first floor upwards, is situated more centrally, with space on either side. There are windows in the side of the house too, which is lovely. You can't have too much daylight in a house.

During the refurbishment, we opened up the two reception rooms to form one. The effect is one continuous space and remarkably, when the middle wall was removed, we found that the ceiling mouldings matched perfectly.

This room was then opened up straight through to the original kitchen, which we extended to the back, to form a utility room and a wine store. Then we extended sideways, building a glass structure supported by one pillar that replaces the original external wall. The sections of glass are massive, and the kitchen is always full of light, whatever the weather. When it rains, the sound is delightful, and we feel much closer to the garden.

The kitchen is the centre of our house, so it was important that we maximised the space. The black granite worktops look lovely with the rich yellow of the walls, a colour chosen by me. The light wooden cupboard doors are inset, with no visible handles, giving a simple, sleek feel to the kitchen. And when you open the front door, the sight line leads straight through the house, through the glass doors and into the garden, which is lovely.

The garden hadn't been worked on for many years and still had the original wooden fire escape. We used a wonderful landscape gardener, Joe Swift, who took us through alternative possibilities and helped us come up with something beautiful. We have a Japanese area at the bottom, with a pebbled floor and a table and benches. There is an Italianesque area, too.

We found the stress of keeping things calm during the works exhausting. By the time it was all finished the neighbours were desperately curious to see what we'd done, so we held a party and invited everyone to come and see.

Of all our possessions, my favourite is probably the enormous painting by Katie that hangs in the hall. It features a solitary female figure, with a sad and bitter air. Although it is based on a very good and sweet family friend, of whom we are all enormously fond, it portrays her in a totally imagined light, wearing fishnets. It's very strong and compelling in its slaggishness. I think it is a wonderful piece of work but the mother of the subject has a fit whenever she sees it.

Mark Elder conducts 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' at the Royal Opera House (020-7304 4000), from 19 December