Place residence

‘Ron’s Place’: driving to save Birkenhead Palace from art brut | Art

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

The interior of Gittins house would stop you anywhere. The fact that no one 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 little longer.

Over the next few weeks, fundraising events will take place to help save “Ron’s” to be lost forever.

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

One of the people involved is Jarvis Cocker, who sees Gittins as an alien artist who created things worth preserving.

“We can all relate to people renovating their homes. Everyone decorates their home in one way or another,” Cocker said. “Ron just went the extra mile.”

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

Bedroom
Bedroom in Gittins House with lion head fireplace. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Bedroom
A marine-themed room. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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

Gittins, a complicated and eccentric character, died in 2019. He left behind a rented apartment filled with bags, boxes, magazines, videos and handwritten notes, some coded. Besides the painted and carved works on the walls and ceilings, there are papier-mâché figures and costumes that he made by hand.

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

“People would find him funny, provocative, annoying, but there was also a method to his madness,” said filmmaker Martin Wallace, who makes a feature length documentary on Gittins and sits on the advisory board of Ron’s Place.

As an example, he mentioned the time Gittins entered the center of Birkenhead, his legs tied together and wearing an orange jumpsuit, to protest detentions at Guantánamo.

“It was a very private and deep manifestation,” Wallace said. “He would address people and tell them if he was talking to them, but he wouldn’t reach out to make as much noise as he could.”

Gittins lived a frugal life on disability benefit money. He was always taking lessons, whether in French, German, accounting or industrial sewing.

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

Hanging clothes
Outfits made and worn by Gittins. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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

Although no one really knows what Gittins was doing in his apartment, he was well known locally and sometimes had artwork commissioned.

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

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

It is not exposed. “The fishmonger’s wife hates it. It is wrapped in bubble wrap in the garage.

There will be a fair number of people who sympathize 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 the sake of preservation, Wallace said. The hope is that it may inspire others.

“What’s remarkable is that everyone who comes here has a kind of childish reaction. There’s something fascinating, challenging and uplifting about that…perhaps also something a little sad.”

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

Upcoming fundraising events are Imaginate, an art and music festival, September 25 in Birkenhead; and Jarvis Cocker in conversation at the Liverpool Playhouse on September 30.