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

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

The front room of the late Ron Gittins’ apartment has a Pompeii Villa of the Mysteries vibe. The hall could be an Egyptian tomb. The bathroom, an aquarium fever dream. Handcrafted fireplaces include a 3 meter high lion, a minotaur and – in the kitchen – a Roman altar.

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

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

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

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

“We can all relate to people building their homes. Everyone decorates their home in some way,” Cocker said. “Ron just went that extra mile.”

Cocker said the lion’s head fireplace, carefully shaped by Gittins with wet concrete, was “really amazing”.

Room in Gittins’ house with a lion’s head fireplace. Photo: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
A room with a marine theme. Photo: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“I’ve always been interested in the art of people who didn’t go through the normal channels, they didn’t go to art college and things 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 behind a rented apartment filled with bags, boxes, magazines, videos and handwritten notes, some in code. Along with the works painted and sculpted on walls and ceilings are papier-mache figures and costumes that he made by hand.

One is the uniform of a Grenadier Guard, which he wore to march up and down, carrying a papier-mâché musket, outside a nursing home 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,” says filmmaker 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 in an orange jumpsuit, protesting detentions in Guantánamo.

“It was a very private, deep protest,” Wallace said. “He would engage in conversation with people and tell them when he spoke to them, but he didn’t go out of his way to make as much noise as he could.”

Gittins lived a frugal life with money from disability benefits. He always took courses, whether in French, German, bookkeeping or industrial sewing.

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

Clothes hanging
Gears made and worn by Gittins. Photo: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

But his story is more nuanced than that. Wallace said: “I’ve interviewed a lot 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 really knew what Gittins was doing in his apartment, he was known locally and would sometimes commission artwork.

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

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

It is not exhibited. “The fishmonger’s wife hates it. It’s wrapped 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’s bad art, of little merit – and that’s fine, say his supporters.

The goal isn’t just to preserve Gittins’ work for preservation’s sake, Wallace said. The hope is that it can inspire others.

“What stands out is that everyone who comes here has a kind of childish reaction. There’s something fascinating and stimulating and uplifting about it… maybe also something a little sad about it.”

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 September 25 in Birkenhead; and Jarvis Cocker in conversation at Liverpool Playhouse on 30 September.


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