‘Ron’s Place’: drive to save Birkenhead palace of outsider art | Harms

The front room of the late Ron Gittins’s flat has a Pompeii Villa of the Mysteries vibe to it. The hall could be an Egyptian tomb. The bathroom, an aquarium fever dream. Handmade fireplaces include a lion 3 meters tall, a minotaur and – in the kitchen – a Roman altar.

The interior of Gittins’s home would stop you in your tracks anywhere. The fact that nobody knew it was there, that he spent decades creating it by stealth in his rented ground-floor property in the Merseyside town of Birkenhead, stops you a bit longer.

In the next few weeks, fundraising events will be held to help save “Ron’s Place” from being lost forever.

Ron Gittins transformed his Merseyside home with murals inspired by the art of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

One of those involved is Jarvis Cocker, who sees Gittins as an outsider artist who created things that deserve to be preserved.

“We can all relate to people who do their houses up. Everybody decorates their house in some way,” said Cocker. “Ron has just gone that extra mile.”

Cocker said the lion’s head fireplace, painstakingly molded by Gittins using wet concrete, was “unbelievable really”.

Room
Room in Gittins’s home featuring a lion’s head fireplace. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Room
The marine-themed room. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“I have always been interested in the art of people who haven’t gone through the normal channels, they haven’t gone to art college and stuff like that,” he added. “They have an idea and they follow it through. We all have creativity within us.”

Gittins, a complicated, eccentric character, died in 2019. He left a rented flat piled high with bags, boxes, magazines, videos and handwritten notes, some in code. Along with the works painted and sculpted on to walls and ceilings are papier-mache figures and costumes he made by hand.

One is the uniform of a Grenadier Guard, which he wore to march up and down, with a papier-mache musket, outside a nursing home that he was in a dispute with on behalf of his mother.

“People would find him funny, provocative, a bloody nuisance, but there was also a method to his madness,” said the film-maker Martin Wallace, who is making a feature-length documentary about Gittins and sits on the advisory board of Ron’s Place.

As an example he mentioned the time Gittins shuffled into the center of Birkenhead with his legs tied together and wearing an orange jumpsuit, protesting about detentions in Guantánamo.

“It was a very private, deep protest,” said Wallace. “He would engage with people and tell them if he spoke to them, but he wasn’t reaching out to make as much noise as he could.”

Gittins led a frugal life with money from disability benefits. He was always taking courses, whether in French, German, book-keeping or industrial sewing.

Gittins had mental health issues and at one point was diagnosed with what today would be called bipolar disorder.

Clothes hanging
Outfits made and worn by Gittins. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

But his story is more nuanced than that. Wallace said: “I’ve interviewed loads of people who met him and I say towards the end of the conversation: ‘Do you think Ron had a mental health problem?’ and they look at me like: ‘Are you serious? Of course he didn’t.'”

Although no one truly knew what Gittins was up to in his flat, he was well known locally and would sometimes have art work commissioned.

Gittins
Ron Gittins died in 2019. Trustees are now campaigning to preserve his home. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“Ron was friendly with the fishmonger in Birkenhead market and he commissioned a painting of him and his brother as Roman invaders to Britain in the fourth century, sacrificing a red mullet,” said Wallace.

It’s not on display. “The fishmonger’s wife hates it. It’s wrapped up in bubble wrap in the garage.”

There will be a fair number of people who empathize with the fishmonger’s wife. They will look at what Gittins has done and think it is bad art, of little merit – and that is fine, say his supporters.

The aim is not just to preserve Gittins’s work for preservation’s sake, said Wallace. The hope is that it might inspire others.

“What is noticeable is that everyone who comes here has a kind of childlike reaction. There is something fascinating and stimulating and uplifting about it … maybe something a bit sad about it as well.”

The plan is for Ron’s Place to become a community resource, inspiring and stimulating creativity. Supporters see it as part of the wider cultural regeneration of the Wirral town.

The upcoming fundraising events are Imaginate, a festival of art and music, on 25 September in Birkenhead; and Jarvis Cocker in conversation at Liverpool Playhouse on 30 September.

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