Actor in residence: Tom Conti's Hampstead home
Now a much-loved family home, Tom Conti's house was once split into flats with lino on the windows. He explains how it was transformed
Wednesday 25 June 2008
After Kara and I got married in Scotland in 1967, we decided to chance our arms in London. We rented a place on the edge of Hampstead, in Childs Hill. Hampstead village was even more beautiful than it is now. One day, we were enjoying a walk around the neighbourhood. We walked down the road we now live in, looked at the big houses and said, "God almighty! What the hell do you have to do to be able to buy a house in a road like this?" Well, what you have to do is have a few successful movies!
We bought our first house in Kilburn in 1979, but it was always our dream to live in Hampstead. Six years later, we were shown this house in Hampstead and fell in love with it. It had been divided into five flats and needed a huge amount of work. It also cost £165,000, two thirds more than we could afford. Luckily, I had just been offered a movie called Miracles, so we decided to stretch ourselves and go for it. We moved in in 1985 and it was the best thing we've ever done.
The property was built in 1902 and is a curious mixture of styles – there's a bit of Scottish baronial and a bit of Arts and Crafts. It's a one-off because it was designed by the man who built it – William Garnett, who started the polytechnic system. He built his dream house and then both his sons were killed in the Great War. As you can imagine, the heart went out of him, and he sold the house.
The people who bought the house divided it into flats, as the only way they could afford to keep the property was to get an income from it. They lived on the ground floor, and made what is now our sitting room into a bedroom and work room, with a narrow corridor between the two. They turned the conservatory into a bathroom, and put linoleum tiles on the windows! With the help of an architect, we took the house back to its original state.
When the house was first built, it was the fashion to have what is called a small ballroom. We've held dances in that ballroom, and had a band playing in the minstrel's gallery above. We have a chandelier hanging there; it is from the Thirties, and German. It came from a haul of stolen goods which was sold off – I suspect it's a Nazi chandelier. My grand piano is in the ballroom, and on the wall is a picture by Alexander Mann of Helen Gow, who did good works for girls. The Tamara de Lempickas are not real. Kara does a show where she, as Tamara, tells her life story, during which she paints a picture. Tamara was an extraordinary painter in the Thirties who had affairs with men and women, and her original pictures now sell for millions.
The kitchen was once two receptions rooms which we knocked into one big room. All the fireplaces in the house had been ripped out and blocked up, so we put in the beautiful Art Nouveau fireplace. The original radiators were sandblasted and painted. For years I've wanted a settle in the shape of the window, and finally we found a wonderful carpenter who designed and built one. He made the table as well. The dining chairs are by Philippe Starck.
The kitchen has a door to the garden. The garden is beautiful – we have bluebells – and our daughter, Nina, had her wedding here. We put in the swings for the occasion, as Nina thought it would be a good idea for the children at the wedding to have something to play on. Now our grandson, Arthur, who is four, plays on them. The summer house was here when we moved in, but I don't think that it is going to remain standing much longer under the weight of the shrubs growing over it.
Upstairs there were eight bedrooms, but Kara uses one as an office, and another is a screening room. My work room was the games room of the original house, and has leaded windows and wonderful open timbers in the high ceiling. There are little steps up to the roof terrace, from which you can see Earls Court and the South Downs.
My room has lots of musical instruments in it, including a balalaika and a mandolin. I never mastered the balalaika, but I did used to play the mandolin. I have just lost my PA to grandparenthood and she is irreplaceable, which is why it's such chaos everywhere. I have too many projects going on at the same time, but I have to keep my nose to the grindstone, as this house requires endless maintenance, and I don't ever want to have to move.
Tom Conti, 66, is an actor, director and novelist. He starred in London and on Broadway in the play Whose Life Is It Anyway? and played the waiter Costas in the 1989 film Shirley Valentine. He lives in Hampstead with his wife, the actress and artist Kara Wilson. His latest film is Dangerous Parking.
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