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Following his death in 2019, the home of outsider artist Ron Gittins revealed itself to be a secret treasure trove of surreal sculpture and classical painting. With efforts currently ongoing to save the art and the flat itself, Matthew Hogarth stepped into Ron’s dreamworld in an attempt to learn more about the idiosyncratic artist.
Growing up, it was less footballers or television personalities or even musicians who I was truly fascinated with and inspired by. Instead, it was those who frequented history books, the world’s outliers. I was always drawn to Victorian eccentrics with carriages drawn by zebras, or the likes of Salvador Dalí, moustache curled, wide-eyed behind a lobster phone. I was always fascinated by the worlds that these characters inhabited, made for themselves and their desire to refuse to conform to society’s standards.
These figures, however, always seemed completely exotic from the post-industrial town of Birkenhead, where I grew up. The local characters were always far more pedestrian, lacking some of the je ne sais quoi of those I obsessed over in large hardback books. My affinity with such people never faded. I formed more recent allegiances with outsiders like Daniel Johnston, while also scouring charity shops for artwork at any opportunity.
So, it was with great surprise and excitement when I first heard of the late RON GITTINS and his rented house in Birkenhead. Within a mile of where I had grown up was a modern-day Sistine Chapel: an ode to ancient civilisations, historical figures and underwater worlds, gloriously splayed out in household paint, fibreglass, papier-mâché and concrete. In an unassuming suburb, between beige interiors and hidden behind drapes, lay an entirely different world; the fantastical home of Ron, now affectionately named RON’S PLACE.
Upon the unfortunate passing of Ron, his niece Jan Williams and her partner Chris Teasdale, who together run the roving art organisation The Caravan Gallery, uncovered what had been decades in the making. Although slightly cluttered upon first entry, there was evidence of Gittins’ work quite literally everywhere in the flat, which had become a work of art of its own. His hall walls were adorned with Ancient Egyptians, hieroglyphics and Cleopatra. This imagery is quite apt – on entering the property you feel a little like how Howard Carter must have felt upon discovering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; there’s a wonderment which just makes you smile.
“Mum and dad kept in touch, but he never invited people to the house. We never lost touch, but we never realised how amazing his place was until he died,” says Jan .Walking round is a rather humbling experience. There’s a true magic within the ground floor flat. Every wall is a canvas, every ceiling a diorama, every floor painted to the style that hangs above it.
Jan remembers her uncle growing up. “He was always obsessed with power. He was born in Birkenhead. We spent a lot of time there as kids, but Ron would go in the outside toilet and recite Richard III in this really grandiose voice,” she recalls. “My grandad would say, ‘Why are you speaking like that, it’s not part of our background’. [But] he would put on these really grand voices. He had this really great air of confidence and grandiosity.”
His obsession with power manifests itself in his art, too. Throughout the house it seems to be a common theme. Books on kings and queens sit juxtaposed with books on revolution and the likes of Henry VIII, Romans and royals of old adorn his walls.
His non-conformism wasn’t just kept inside the house, either. “A lot of what Ron did was very performative. He’d be a familiar sight around Birkenhead wearing crazy outfits and he often went to Wickes to buy sand and cement dressed up,” notes Jan. This sand and cement makes up perhaps the most eye catching features inside: two huge home-made fireplaces, one a lion, the other a minotaur. Inside both sit a couple of tea lights. “He would go busking. A lovely thing that people said was that, ‘Ahh your Ron, mad but we love him’. He was always charming and he would have time for you. And, as family, we often saw another side of him as he was attention seeking and he was often called ‘mad uncle Ronnie’ – part of me thinks that’s great as the status quo needs to be challenged.”
To me, it’s that Ron never let anyone inside that makes the place just so special. “He really inspired my creativity,” Jan tells us. The Caravan Gallery operates with much the same ethos as Ron himself: offering up art to those who may not otherwise get to experience it while capturing the surrealism in everyday life. “I think I was born creative and my parents always encouraged our creativity. He made learning things really exciting and always had lots of history books. I remember getting obsessed with ancient Rome and he gave me a Roman clay tile once. I just found it fascinating being able to hold that connection between myself and people in a completely different place in time. He was always made learning something interesting and exciting, and what’s funny going through a lot of his stuff is how much we have [in common]. My studio is absolutely chocka with stuff I’ve saved, like books and papers and things that might be useful to make things with.”
“He did it for himself,” Jan continues. “Even when I was a kid, I remember he lived in a rented accommodation with my nan and grandad in New Ferry and even then he painted his bedroom ceiling as a whole Roman scene. I think the neighbours got a bit pissed off as he started to create a Roman wall in the garden. He used to dismember my grandparents’ brushes to get the bristles off to make Roman helmets and overran the house with projects. There was always fibreglass and glue and Plasticine everywhere. He was always doing something and was always very proud of what he did. So, he wasn’t being secretive in that respect. He often made paintings for people, but it was more the fear of losing the art within the house.”
A sculpture in the house still holds the tag from its submission to The Royal Academy. Without wanting to sound clichéd, there can often be a snobbery within the world which can cause exclusion. Whether that be through art being outside contemporary taste or not fitting within parameters. Therefore, there’s something truly refreshing in Ron’s work in that it was created for the love of it, for something beautiful, to live in and completely lose yourself in. It offers something unique which could have been lost if it had to jump through hoops and meet expected norms.
The fact that the interior of the flat was kept secret is perhaps somewhat of a double-edged sword. Having used household items, some of the art is in a fragile state. “We’ve had the head conservator from National Museums Liverpool over and she said there’s been no damp in there and it’s been kept in really good condition, but some of it really does need attention,” admits Jan. Alongside National Museums Liverpool, the space has also attracted the attention of art specialists worldwide, as well as the likes of filmmaker Martin Wallace and Jarvis Cocker who have become patrons of the space. Somewhat ironic for Ron I’m sure, achieving a posthumous fame with work we’re not sure he wanted people to see.
As I walk out of the house, adjusting my eyes to the sunshine and leafy suburbia that surrounds me, it hits me how much value the house possesses. Not only as an archive of a lifetime of art and the unique individual behind it, but the lessons it holds in the joys of individuality and the expression of self. I may not have had the pleasure to meet Ron, but his art tells a lot of this story and provides the interview he couldn’t give.