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Max Olesker| Longreads | July 13, 2023 | 15 minutes (4,199 words)

When I walk into the room, it is the enormous minotaur head that first catches my eye—its vast gaping concrete mouth containing the grate of a fireplace, its wide eyes staring back at me. Above the minotaur, ancient Greek tragedians are painted on the wall—Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus. Surrounding the minotaur on one side is an array of handmade military paraphernalia: shields, tabards, helmets, and weapons. Dismembered human body parts sculpted from newspaper adorn the other, limbs, torsos, and heads all aimlessly scattered near the bay windows.

It’s a cold February morning, and I’ve come to Birkenhead, just outside Liverpool, to visit the former home of a man named Ron Gittins, a property affectionately known as Ron’s Place. Over the course of 33 years, Gittins painstakingly transformed almost every surface of this flat with a series of artworks in a variety of styles and mediums, from friezes on the walls of his living room to a Roman altar in his kitchen and enormous, ambitious fireplaces (yes, multiple). It’s a singlehanded labor of love. But, because Gittins was renting the flat—with no right to modify the property to this extent—it’s also illegal. As a result, the work was created almost entirely in secret. It was only after Gittins’death at age 79 that word gradually began to trickle out about the existence of this strange cave of wonders.

It was in Koh Samui, Thailand, that I encountered my first “outsider environment.” Away from the bustling hubbub of the beaches and tourist strips, partway up a mountain, in a secluded grove surrounded by waterfalls and greenery, lies the Secret Buddha garden. It’s full of large, intricate stone sculptures—angels, snakes, musicians, and Buddha figures—in a world sprung entirely from the imagination of a man named Nim Thongsuk. A retired durian fruit farmer, Thongsuk started his project at the age of 77, constructing a vast, complex environment that even included his own tomb. Exploring the garden, I became taken by this industrious, audacious expression of something deeply personal. 

“Outsider art,” “folk art,” and “art brut” are designations frequently applied to artists—often untrained—who work outside the classical tradition (and frequently the law). If the work is a large-scale installation, permanent or semi-permanent, it might be deemed an “outsider environment” or “visionary environment.” Outside Madrid, a former monk named Justo Gallego Martínez spent 60 years singlehandedly building his own cathedral, working on it daily until he passed away in 2021. In Westbourne Grove, London, retired postal porter and factory worker Gerry Dalton, an “Irishman and self-proclaimed gardener” according to his site’s Instagram bio, created a series of remarkable outdoor sculptures along the Grand Union Canal, in a collection he dubbed Gerry’s Pompeii. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Helen Martins, who lived from 1897 to 1976, created The Owl House, which features over 300 sculptures made from concrete and ground glass. And there are many, many more across the globe, each with its own infinitely rich backstory.

I am partly drawn to these works because of my parents. My mother trained in visual arts and works with community groups, teaching thousands of people her skills and techniques; whenever she sits somewhere for more than a few minutes, sketches and illustrations emerge. Every birthday card she’s ever given me has been a wondrous one-off—illustrated, painted, or screen-printed—and accompanied by a poem from my father, a writer, poet, and word-obsessive from whom I’ve inherited my own compulsions. Both my parents have amassed vast bodies of work, unseen by galleries or collectors. Perhaps they too are outsider artists. And perhaps, via her teaching, my mother has even inspired the work of other outsider artists as well. 

Upon entering Ron’s Place for the first time, I’m unprepared for the feeling of being subsumed by a man’s imagination. The flat is dusty, strange, and wonderful.  

The central corridor is painted floor-to-ceiling with ancient Egyptian iconography—profiles of Horus the falcon-headed god and Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, beneath life-size depictions of a Cleopatra-esque pharaoh and impressionistic signs and sigils. On the left is the Minotaur Room, its cavernous mouth the focal point. Next is the bathroom, entirely aquatic-themed, with manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and all manner of other painted sea life swimming across the walls. The Georgian Room is filled with portraits of naval figures and the first fireplace Gittins created (a comparatively low-key affair, with fish for feet). Across the hall is the Lion Room, which features trompe-l’oeil friezes, including an area of faux chipped stone and a cheekily smiling horse, which faces Gittins’s technical masterpiece: a vast lion fireplace, spectacularly and carefully rendered. 

Upon entering Ron’s Place for the first time, I’m unprepared for the feeling of being subsumed by a man’s imagination. The flat is dusty, strange, and wonderful.  

Throughout the flat are half-finished sculptures of busty women, bags of papers, books, bric-a-brac, passable (from a distance) replicas of military uniforms; miscellaneous items gathered and hoarded for some future use. Whatever task Gittins’ magpie mind focused on, he seems to have worked on it feverishly and industriously. Many of the paintings are naive. The painting on the high ceiling of the Georgian Room is particularly crude—the makeshift ladder and extra-long extended paintbrush he used clearly not affording him the detail he might have wished for. But the fireplaces, particularly the lion, are astonishing. And the totality, the experience of it all, is what Ron’s Place is about. Not one painting, not the model of the weirdly muscly cherub, nor the vast pile of notes seemingly devised to help Gittins remember entire history books (“TAASB; The American Army Surrounds Boston” “HLOTB; Heavy Losses of the British”), but everything, all together—that’s what makes this special. Taken as a whole, it’s an endlessly fascinating space; a window into a man’s life, into his mind. Although the flat is cold and musty, it’s a dreamlike place where time slips away. The experience is all-encompassing and leaves me feeling disoriented. 

“It’s all quite powerful, isn’t it?” says Martin Wallace, as he shows me around the flat. Wallace, 55, is a warm, articulate Scouser and BAFTA-nominated filmmaker who frequently collaborates with Jarvis Cocker, the frontman of ’90s Britpop band Pulp. Together, they made a documentary series, Journeys Into the Outside, traveling the planet to investigate extraordinary places built by regular people. Wallace, who lives nearby, is now working on a feature-length documentary about Gittins, and in the process has become inexorably drawn into the orbit of Ron’s Place. Initially, this only involved helping cover the flat’s rent—as a trustee—after Gittins passed, and thinking of a long-term strategy to preserve the unique interior. But it’s rapidly become far more problematic. Ron’s Place is under threat: After months of stasis, the landlord and owner, Salisbury Management Services, has finally decided enough is enough. The building is to be sold at auction.

The front door flies open and Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale hurry in. They huddle with Wallace in the Egyptian corridor; urgent crisis talks begin. Jan Williams, 61, is Gittins’ niece. Together with her partner, Teasdale, 71, they work as artists under the name The Caravan Gallery. Along with Wallace, they have now dedicated themselves to preserving Gittins’ legacy. The current discussions, hushed and frantic, are about potential investors who might work with them—but they don’t sound promising. One man claiming to have the money also had quite a lot of snot on his jumper. The housing associations who expressed interest the previous summer have all gone quiet, the occasional sympathetic voice inevitably getting lost in the mundane realities of running a large business. In order to be eligible to apply for funding, the trio has created a legal entity, The Wirral Arts and Culture Community Land Trust. But, with time now of the essence, it’s not clear how that will save the property. 

One man claiming to have the money also had quite a lot of snot on his jumper.

At one point, we all stand together in the Georgian Room. “What would you do?” Williams asks me. It’s hard to answer. It’s also hard to countenance the environment I am standing in being destroyed. Could an art gallery step in? Could the council? Could the Lottery? 

“Couldn’t Paul McCartney just buy it?” says Williams, exasperated. 

Ronald Geoffrey Gittins was born in 1939, the middle child between two sisters, and grew up in a small terraced house that was later destroyed as part of Liverpool’s slum clearances. His father, James, a navy man, worked on the docks, and his mother, Alice, worked in service for a wealthy family. In their small, ramshackle yard, where his father kept ducks, there was an outside toilet. Here Gittins would sequester himself away, training his voice by reciting Shakespeare, frequently Richard III’s opening monologue:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

“There were theories that he was on some sort of spectrum,” says Williams. “At school, teachers didn’t know how to handle him. He was obviously really bright—but he didn’t know how to fit in.” 

“He was known as your mad uncle Ronny,” Teasdale says gently. 

After school, his employment was patchy. In the 1960s, he trained as a Methodist minister at a theological college in Derbyshire. “He became a sort of freelance preacher,” says Williams, “causing havoc and being a pain in the ass!” For a while, he became a white goods inspector, where he was known for being overly officious and invariably siding with the management, rather than the employees.

While the interior of his flat was a closely-guarded secret, Gittins himself was a well-known flamboyant local figure. He wore bright handmade suits and wigs—sometimes more than one at a time. He would take his guitar to the local bank and serenade the staff. “It’s kind of what we might call eccentricities, in a euphemistic way,” says Wallace. “Mental health problems, looking at it another way, of course.” He was sectioned on a number of occasions, following bouts of erratic behavior, and later in life shared his belief that he was a spy, intercepting articles hidden in newspaper articles. “People sort of enjoyed what he’d do, but also othered him quite a lot,” says Wallace.

But he was also clearly extremely bright and capable, fascinated with the world, and generous with his time. Christopher Lee-Power, a Liverpool-based actor, met Gittins in a chance encounter on a college bus and credits him with launching his professional career. “Ron took me under his wing and began refining my voice while teaching me drama, life skills, and art,” says Lee-Power. “We visited several art galleries, where he shared his knowledge of the great artists, and he even encouraged me to read aloud from a book to boost my confidence. As the years passed, I honed my acting skills and voice under his tutelage.”

He wore bright handmade suits and wigs—sometimes more than one at a time. He would take his guitar to the local bank and serenade the staff.

And as an artist, Gittins wasn’t totally untrained—he took an art foundation at the Laird College of Art and at one point set up a logo business called Minstrel Enterprises, naming the company after a Bible quote in which King Solomon summons a musician to play. 

What’s more, Ron’s Place wasn’t the first home in which Gittins expressed his art; he had transformed properties twice before. He did it in his parents’ rented home:
pictures of pompeii help put ron to sleep reads the headline on a mid-’70s article in The Liverpool Echo, alongside a photo of a 35-year-old mustachioed Gittins sitting in his childhood bedroom and gesturing proudly at the space he has transformed. Later, he secretly recreated the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling on the ceiling of his rented room. But it wasn’t until 1986 that he found his true muse—the little flat where he would live for the rest of his life—and begin his greatest creative endeavor.

In the days after I return to London, Williams, Teasdale, and Wallace continue to tirelessly publicize their cause. A GoFundMe is set up, and donations trickle in. The public is enthusiastic, but the pledges are generally on the order of £10 and £20, and their target—£350,000—seems futile. 

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The precarity associated with Ron’s Place is not uncommon when it comes to outsider environments, which are often created without any long-term planning. This has led to some mixed legacies. After Justo Gallego Martínez’s death, Spanish officials deemed his junk cathedral unsanitary and refused to honor his wish of being buried in the crypt; the cathedral itself faced the prospect of demolition before eventually being preserved by a charity. Gerry’s Pompeii, though “saved” after a mass crowdfunding push, had a number of its artifacts removed by a relative, only surviving in a diminished, depleted form. But Helen Martins’ Owl House was declared a “provisional National Monument” in 1989, keeping her glass (and concrete) menagerie safe.

Discussions around the fate of these environments invariably prompt questions. What is art? What is valuable? But part of the joy and power of environments like these is that they are generally, almost obstinately, uncommodifiable. In this, they feel like the polar opposite of NFTs—they are not joyless, arid things, designed solely for the marketplace; they are not scalable. Instead, they speak to something inner. This is My World reads the sign that Helen Martins placed on the grounds of Owl House. “I will not be ignored” was Ron Gittins’ passionate mantra, often repeated to his brother-in-law Henry. 

But the defiantly impractical nature of visionary environments certainly doesn’t make them any easier to preserve or protect. “If Ron had made prints or T-shirts, everyone would want one,” says Wallace. “But what do you do with a minotaur fireplace?”

What do you do with a minotaur fireplace?

As the auction to sell the flat approaches, the atmosphere in Gittin’s camp oscillates between panicky, resigned, and frustrated. Appeals to the press are made: Articles appear in The Guardian and local papers; Williams speaks on BBC Radio 4.

Serious buyers begin to emerge but with no plans to preserve the unique ground floor space. Sensing a bargain, a builder draws up plans to gut the building and remodel it as a home for his family. The unthinkable—the destruction of Ron’s Place—now seems the most likely outcome.

In a last-ditch effort to keep bidders at bay, the team submits a listing to Historic England, infuriating the landlord and property manager. “The owners were absolutely furious, and said we’d stabbed them in the back after everything they’d done,” says Williams, “Which is a bit luxurious because we’d been paying the rent and we kept our side of the bargain.”

In life, Gittin’s relationship with his landlords was equally contentious. “He didn’t have water for many years because of a dispute,” says Wallace. “Originally his rent included water. Then the landlord was bought out by another landlord, and the second landlord said, ‘I’m not paying your fucking water rates.’ And Ron said, ‘Oh, yes, you are. And let’s go to court about it because it’s in my contract.’ Eventually, it was found against Ron—but he disputed that. So he’d walk miles for a standing tap.” 

With his penchant for high-handed letter writing, Gittins escalated things to the inevitable level. “Dear Mr. Gittins,” reads a letter dated January 16, 1996, “Thank you for your recent letter to the Prime Minister about your liability for paying water charges to North West Water. Your letter has been passed to his Department for reply.” When Gittins eventually did get water access, he would leave his water on constantly. “I don’t know whether he was trying to retrospectively get his money’s worth,” says Wallace, “or whether it was just so cold that he didn’t want the taps to freeze.”

Discussions around the fate of these environments invariably prompt questions. What is art? What is valuable? But part of the joy and power of environments like these is that they are generally, almost obstinately, uncommodifiable.

The Gittins of my imagination reminds me a little of Johnny Rooster Byron, the central figure in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. A local drug dealer, retired stuntman, and teller of tall tales, Byron is a self-created creature of fantasy. He is set against his nemesis, the local council—a bureaucratic, clipboard-toting symbol of mundanity. He’s a romantic, creating art from the mythic history that surrounds him and the detritus of his life. Byron is a deeply flawed figure, but his impassioned fist-waving at authority has a certain power to it, a certain magic. He rails against the quotidian bean counters until the last, but you feel the walls closing in, and sense his world can’t last forever.

Yet, bizarrely, despite his outsider status, Gittins wasn’t just anti-authority; he clearly identified with the establishment. His journey through life was shaped by a testy, complicated relationship with the powers that be: part fascination, part frustration. An ardent monarchist and an enthusiastic Thatcherite, in 1973 he even ran unsuccessfully for Conservative councilor in Bevington. He became almost a tribute to authority, from his preoccupation with spycraft and military history to dabbling with organized religion and his prodigious, litigious, letter-writing. (He tended to begin his letters with the words “Without prejudice,” a phrase Williams feels reflects his positive outlook on the world, but Wallace suspects to be more a highfalutin means of being able to sound off with impunity.) 

And, though Gittins created all of his work outside of institutions, that wasn’t entirely by choice: In 1998 he submitted a piece of work to the Royal Academy. When I visit the flat, I see the piece—a bust of Alexander the Great, created in newspaper and glue. It wasn’t accepted. But he never seemed fazed by rejection, Williams explaining that he’d invariably see it as their loss, shrug, and continue work on his latest project. Perhaps he didn’t require the approval of the establishment because, in his own flat, he was the establishment. Gittins had created a visionary environment: A place where he rubbed shoulders with kings and commanders and beautiful women, where he dressed in the smartest of uniforms and corresponded with the highest offices in the land, and they with him.

He’s a romantic, creating art from the mythic history that surrounds him and the detritus of his life.

In February, a final burst of creativity sets in at the flat. Local music students come to play there and Wallace films them. Andy McCluskey, the lead singer of the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, drops by. Paul Griffiths, the Birkenhead Poet, performs spoken word. But it’s a last hurrah; at 4.30 p.m. on February 28, the day before the auction, their license runs out. The keys to Ron’s Place are handed back. 

The next morning, however, Williams receives an email: “Just heard [the flat] is up for auction today. I would like to loan you the money needed.”

Tamsin Wimhurst is a 57-year-old history and heritage professional from Cambridge with a passion for rescuing unusual properties. In 2014, she and her husband, Mike, became the saviors of David Parr House, a Cambridge terraced house filled with beautifully preserved, intricately patterned interiors from the Arts & Crafts movement. Wimhurst was sat at breakfast flicking through a day-old Guardian when she read about Ron’s Place being put up for auction later that day. She sprang into action. “I rang my husband who was away to say we had to save this place, and made contact with Ron’s Place whilst also trying to catch a train to London,” says Wimhurst, “but I had to act quickly, as the auction was at midday.” 

The morning of the auction becomes a whirlwind. Gittins’ camp had the assurance of funds from Wimhurst, but, with mere hours to the auction, no actual money had changed hands. The Wirral Arts and Culture Community Land Trust they’d set up doesn’t even have a bank account yet. With the clock ticking, Martin Wallace takes a giant plunge. He offers to use his own credit card to secure the deposit. 

“It was all, you know, completely risky,” says Williams. “We were all in our van driving over to Ron’s, and Martin was saying ‘Should I? I’m gonna do it now. Are you okay with that?’” 

He places the bid.

Gittins seemingly never stopped having grand plans. When his parents needed a wall outside their house, he volunteered, promptly beginning a hugely ambitious Roman wall, the construction of which rendered the garden completely unusable for 12 months. Towards the end of his mother’s life, Gittins would wheel her out of her nursing home and take her to spend the night in his flat. His siblings were horrified, but Gittins didn’t seem to care—and, by all accounts, Alice seemed delighted. But it was worrying, wearying behavior.  

His family became frustrated. His sister Pat was able to retain an affection for her brother, but Pat’s husband, Henry, eventually washed his hands of Ron—and still can’t bring himself to talk about him. “Henry hasn’t got any interest—very little interest,” says Pat. “He [Ron] really had a detrimental effect on our family life, many times.”

But it’s a last hurrah; at 4.30 p.m. on February 28, the day before the auction, their license runs out. The keys to Ron’s Place are handed back. 

The last time Pat saw Ron, there was none of the fire and brimstone of his more combative moments. They shared an avocado sandwich, and Ron ate a kiwi fruit. “We just chatted generally about different things,” says Pat, “nothing of any great significance. Before he left, he said, ’Can I say a little prayer with you?’ I said ‘fine.’ And he sounded quite reasonable and rational.”

But years of living in an unheated flat eventually took their toll: Gittins became ill. A local friend tried to put him in contact with social services and Age Concern, but Ron played down his illness and pretended he could look after himself, only allowing a head teacher from a local school to check in on him and deliver essentials. By this point, he had begun sleeping on the floor behind his front door, as though guarding the flat. It was here, on September 2, 2019, that Ron Gittins’ body was found—and the fight for the legacy of his extraordinary home began.

As the auction plays out, the atmosphere in the van is unbearably tense. But there is only one counteroffer—likely the landlord attempting to boost the bidding price—otherwise, the team’s listing of the property with Historic England works in warding off other bidders. At 12.40 p.m., a notification pings up on Williams’ phone. Their bid has won. 

Euphoric, they pull up to Ron’s Place. Outside, sitting in his car, is the property manager who had recently berated them for the Historic England registration. They knock on his window; when he rolls it down to tell them that the house has been sold, they say “We know—we’ve just bought it!” The issue was always knowing what to do with a space that wilfully ignored the rules of the world, and instead, chaotically, gleefully, created its own. The property management company was never some vindictive captain of industry; it just hadn’t signed up for a Roman altar to be created in one of its buildings. The bland, indifferent machinery of business was simply seeking to tame something strange and wild—to turn it into another cell on a spreadsheet. Or, as Williams put it: “The notion of a developer gutting the amazing art environment created by Ron Gittins over 33 years is like deciding to gut a pyramid to create a new branch of Primark.”

Tamsin Wimhurst proved to be true to her word, providing funds from the Muller-Wimhurst Trust to ensure the ongoing survival of Ron’s Place (and Wallace’s credit rating). The home had found a benefactor who sees value in the chaos. “It is unique and quirky, with the passion of one man’s life laid bare on the walls of his home. It immediately gets your mind whirring—how, why, who, what, when?” says Wimhurst. “I just thought, ‘How could it not be saved?’”

Jarvis Cocker succinctly summed up Ron’s Place in his statement to the press: “With environments like these, you get a complete work of art that somebody is living in and that they’ve established the rules. It’s like a personal universe.” Adding, with beautiful understatement, “Everybody decorates their house in some way, Ron has just gone that extra mile.”

On March 29, the day after the sale finally goes through, I speak to Williams. She is elated: “Miracles do happen!”

There’s more work to be done. Having fought tooth and nail to preserve the dilapidated house that contains Ron’s Place, Williams, Teasdale, and Wallace are now faced with the challenge of what to do with it. 

Further fundraising is beginning, with the aim of renovating the property and making it safe to welcome the public. But there’s now the sense of being at the start of a new chapter, rather than the closing of an old one. 

“Ron’s Place will thrive as it has a group of passionate people behind it who have worked so hard to conserve it,” says Wimhurst. “I don’t mind what it becomes—that is for Ron’s Place to decide—but I know that the community, wellbeing, and creativity for all will be at the heart of it.” 

“We want to make the house really beautiful, just make it a really fantastic place,” says Williams. Their Community Land Trust now has ambitions beyond Ron’s Place, too—to take on other old buildings and transform them into creative spaces. 

I ask Williams what Gittins would have thought of the drama surrounding his old flat.“Oh, he’d have been absolutely over the moon,” she says. “He always said, ‘I will not be ignored.’ So it’s like he’s getting all the attention you could ever have wished for, even after he’s gone.”

And so, against the odds, the minotaur continues to roar. Ron’s Place—with all its grandiosity, impossible aspirations, outsized ambition, surprising accomplishments, exasperating complications, contradictions, and surprises—lives on. And so does Ron.

Ron’s place is being renovated before a grand reopening. In the meantime, you can tour Rons place online or find more information here.

Max Olesker is a London-based writer-performer, comedian, and Associate Editor at Esquire Magazine UK. His feature writing has also appeared in The ObserverTimesTelegraph, and Esquire’s many international editions, and he is the co-creator of the ITV sitcom Deep Heat. His radio sitcom, The Casebook of Max & Ivan, is available on BBC Sounds.

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
editor: Peter Rubin