Ron’s Place: Birkenhead flat of outsider art granted Grade II listing

<span>Ron’s Place is thought to be the first example of outsider art to be nationally listed.</span><span>Photograph: Historic England Archive 2024/PA</span>
Ron’s Place is thought to be the first example of outsider art to be nationally listed.Photograph: Historic England Archive 2024/PA

A ground-floor rented flat in Birkenhead which was crafted over a period of 30 years into an extraordinary palace of outsider art has been given Grade II-listed status.

The flat in Wirral, known as Ron’s Place, is thought to be the UK’s only example of outsider art to be nationally listed.

From the outside it looks like what it is: an attractive but unremarkable Victorian semi-detached house. Inside, the late Ron Gittins created a remarkable fantasy world with brightly coloured historical murals, handmade costumes, and fireplaces sculpted into a minotaur, a lion’s head and a Roman altar.

To step inside the flat is something else. Jaws generally drop. It’s not conventionally great art, but that’s not the point.

One fan is the Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. “A small number of people on this planet have known for a while that Ron’s Place is a very special place – but from now on it is official,” he said.

“The work of one unique gentleman in the north of England has been recognised nationally. Globally even. Hallelujah!!”

The flat was saved from being stripped of its interiors when campaigners managed to buy the whole house a year ago, thanks to Tamsin Wimhurst, who read about it in the Guardian.

Gittins’ niece Jan Williams said the idea of it being listed was originally a “ploy” to put off other bidders. For it to actually happen “is absolutely brilliant … it has been a long old journey”.

Williams said she thought her uncle would be “absolutely thrilled. He just felt he was on to something, that he was on a mission to create. He said to my dad once: ‘I will not be ignored.’

“Just how audacious is it to stick a great big concrete minotaur fireplace in your rented flat. Other people fret about Blu-Tack stains on the wall.”

Gittins, who died in 2019, aged 79, was a complicated character who most people would have regarded as eccentric.

Alison Bailey-Smith, a volunteer and neighbour, used to bump into him when she was pushing her young children round in their pram. He usually had a wig on and gaiters flapping around above his wellington boots which he had fashioned from newspaper. He also had a pram.

“I never thought to look inside it but apparently he was going off to the local DIY shop to buy concrete or cement to make his amazing structures,” she said.

Like most people, she had no idea what Gittins was up to inside his flat. “I could see that there was creative stuff in the garden and there were two totem poles outside his front door which were interesting.

“His front garden was full of junk but it wasn’t junk, it was his art store, really.”

After Gittins died and she went inside the flat, Bailey-Smith said she could hardly believe her eyes. “It was incredible, absolutely incredible … those fireplaces, the colours, the proportions in the murals. You have to see it really to believe it. Who does that in a rental property? It is important that it’s protected because there is nowhere else like it.”

The listing by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England (HE), is a recognition of “Ron’s creation as an examplar in this country of large-scale outsider art”.

It gives Ron’s Place extra protection as well as helping to unlock new sources of funding for the custodians hoping to use the property to inspire creativity and improve wellbeing.

The flat is not yet open to the public but it is hoped that small guided tours will be possible in a year’s time.

Catherine Croft, the director of the Twentieth Century Society, said Ron’s Place was “2oth century heritage unlike any other, the first example of outsider art to be nationally listed”.

Outsider art is a term often applied to work done by people on the margins of society, making art for themselves not an audience. There are many individual examples of the genre in UK gallery collections, including the Tate and the Whitworth in Manchester, but entire properties like Ron’s Place are more commonly found in Europe and the US.

Martin Wallace is a Ron’s Place patron and film-maker who made an outside art documentary series with Cocker. He said to go in the flat was “a rare and strangely beautiful immersive experience”.

“I’ve spent time in many outsider art environments around the globe and Ron’s Place ranks with the best of them,” he said.

Other examples of outsider art around the world

Das Junkerhaus, Lemgo, Germany

Handyman Karl Junker (1850-1912) was regarded as a solitary, eccentric man who had few visitors.

The strange house he created, with unique paintings and sculpture, was his life’s work and has been called “one of the quirkiest, most idiosyncratic architectural sites in Germany, if not Europe”.

Watts Towers, Los Angeles

In a poor suburb of the city are 17 tower-like structures created by Saboto “Simon” Rodia, a semi-literate Italian immigrant who worked alone on them from 1921 to 1954.

Rodia covered steel bar frames in concrete and whatever items he found, including broken bottles, tiles and old crockery. The closest Rodia ever came to explaining his work was to say: “I had in mind to do something big and I did it.”

Le Palais Idéal, Hauterives, France

Ferdinand Cheval was a village postal worker who built a fantasy palace from rocks he found in the village.

The resulting structure is strange, like “a Monet painting with small pebbles”, according to one visitor, and “like an insight into an archaeologist’s unconscious,” said another.

Garden of Eden, Lucas, Kansas, US

Retired civil war veteran and free thinker SP Dinsmoor began constructing his cabin home and sculpture garden in 1907.

He hoped his art would continue for ever as an appeal for a more just society. To that end, he built a pyramid mausoleum with a glass-fronted concrete coffin where his embalmed corpse keeps watch.