The remarkable interior of an unremarkable ground-floor flat in Birkenhead has been Grade II listed – the first time, we think, that a listing has been bestowed on an example of ‘outsider art’ (a term, defined by the Tate as ‘art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists’).

The flat in question was the home of the late Ron Gittins who passed away in 2019. He was, by all accounts, well-known in his Wirral town – a colourful, rather eccentric character, he was once seen marching up and down in a home-made Grenadier Guard’s uniform complete with papier-mache musket – but few people, including his own family, had the faintest idea what lay behind the front door of the flat he’d rented for three decades.

Discovering his creation must have been a bit like entering an untouched Pharaoh’s tomb. Imagine, the hallway lined with murals inspired by ancient Egypt, the fishy bathroom – an underwater fantasy, the Georgian Room (above), decorated with trompe l’oeil portraits (ladies, ships and admirals in ornate painted frames). There are frescoes and friezes, painted floors and ceilings (a Roman soldier in the Lion Room, turtles and dragonfly in the bathroom), handmade fireplaces (including a concrete lion three metres tall, a minotaur (below) and – in the kitchen – a Roman altar). When found, all rooms in this classical ‘villa’ were furnished with a crazy assortment of junk (costumes, musical instruments, magazines, paints, sculptures, papier mache body parts…). This is a true one-off.

After Ron passed away, his landlord decided to sell the building (the flat is one of four) and a campaign was launched to the save what is now known as ‘Ron’s Place’ – a national treasure. Jarvis Cocker waded in to help with  fund-raising and publicity. With a guide price of £325-350,000, the estate agent, Smith & Sons, took the place to auction, saying ‘the ground floor flat has generated local and national interest due to the extensive artwork, sculptures and mouldings created therein’.

At the last minute, the building was bought by the local community with a loan from benefactor, Tamsin Wimhurst, who with her husband, Mike Muller, runs a charitable trust (they were also responsible for saving the David Parr House in Cambridge – an ordinary home with an extraordinary arts and crafts interior created by its owner).

So, what next for this palace of outsider art? Now, it’s in the hands of the newly formed Wirral Arts and Culture Community Land Trust who aim to use Ron’s Place to ‘inspire and empower’. Visits are currently limited to virtual tours (there is also a feature-length documentary in the pipe-line) but fingers crossed, Ron’s Place will be open to the public sometime soon.
Ron’s Place, Birkenhead.

Images courtesy of Historic England and the 20th Century Society.

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