Here at Ellie & Co we like to support the outsider, the outcast, the person who dares to be different, who risks becoming the butt of jokes and eyerolls for their cause. Robert Burns – not the poet – is one of these people. A retired decorator who decided one day to transform his home in the sleepy Brighton suburb of Coldean, into a giant renaissance masterpiece of outsider art without a second thought for how people might react. Bizarre or beautiful, or both? You decide.
Other than a painting on the green dustbin above which you can’t see properly in the photo above, from the outside there is absolutely no clue what feast for the eyes lies hidden behind the front door. Let’s go inside…
Yes, please take a moment to compose yourself and take in the scene. Look at all that detail, the figures floating on the ceiling and up the stairs. All of it painted by Robert. He even painted each framed picture, too. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Robert is a self-taught artist with no classical training at all. I know, right! That’s not to say he’s never been creative or artistic. One of his first jobs was as a window-dresser in London, but when the recession hit in the early 1980s and indy shops closed, his work dried up. So he became a painter and decorator, which left him with a creative urge to fill.
He hadn’t intended to paint his house in this way. It just happened as they say, starting at a bootsale in the pretty town of Lewes, East Sussex, when Robert picked up a tourist guide about the Vatican in Rome. He was captivated by the pictures of its beautiful interiors and was astounded to see every room was painted – even the Pope’s bathroom. After that, he was hooked, read a lot about Renaissance art and decided to experiment at home. Starting in 2003, age 53, Robert began painting his house in a similar style, although with a modern twist, one area at a time. He started on the stairs with a Caravaggio, then worked his way up the actual stairwell, where there’s a Leonardo De Vinci, and the Doge of Loredan of Venice by Giovanni Bellini, to name a couple.
It took him time to get into the swing of it, but after a few mishaps, he’s since copied paintings like The Sistine Madonna, The Birth of Venus, and Phoebus in his Car, Preceded By Aurora and the Morning Star and trompe l’oeil frames for murals. So proud of his achievement, he called a few TV production companies who featured his home in various shows. This in turned gained him a lot of UK press attention between 2015 and 2016 in Britain, several articles sadly mocking his work, his home and his taste in interior decor. Other articles also wrongly stated he’d painted his house like the Sistine Chapel – even though there isn’t one painting from the Sistine Chapel in his house. “I steer clear of painting anything in the Sistine Chapel,” he tells David Clegg in an interview for The Keeper’s Project, which documents threatened environments made by self-taught artists. “That’s because we have a recreation of the Sistine Chapel just down the road… 13 miles away in Worthing. The Sistine Chapel has been painted a good few times.”
I hope you enjoyed your tour here. Robert and Linda’s house is their private home and not open to the public. Thank you to Thierry and David at The Keeper’s Project for kindly letting me use several of their photos of inside Robert’s home. See more and read their interview with David, here.