First published: Spring 2024

An old book on the Vatican City moved Robbie Burns to turn his house into a single, continuous work of art 


Robert “Robbie” Burns was born in Newcastle in North East England but went to school in colonial-era Chingola – a copper-mining town in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) – after his family emigrated. His earliest memories are of a new town – industrial, sparse, with dirt roads and wooden sidewalks and nothing decorative to enhance how the place looked. “I had no classical education. Funny that I left school when I was 15 and I didn’t start painting pictures until I was 56,” he says.


On the upstairs landing, a dentil trim under a cornice and painted swags add additional decoration; all photos: Thierry Bal


Seeking to avoid conscription into the Rhodesian army, Burns returned to the UK in 1970 and moved to London. He became a freelance window display artist – a term he prefers to “window dresser” – which gave him the opportunity to be creative every day. However, the work dried up in 1989 when the UK economy went into recession and many of the small high-street shops that were his best clients closed down. To make ends meet, he took a job as painter and decorator: “It was the economic crash that led me to pick up a paintbrush. I bought a book ... and studied techniques for marbling and paint effects, thinking I’d have the chance to show what I could do. But working as a decorator is just a boring routine of painting walls and ceilings white or magnolia with a roller.”


The staircase features a variety of trompe-l’oeil architectural features and colourful marbled panels


Burns began to experiment with rag rolling on the walls of the local authority house that he still lives in with his partner Linda in Coldean, a quiet suburb of Brighton on England’s south coast. He remembers feeling desperately bored and uninspired, until 2003 when he came across an old tourist guidebook about the Vatican City, at a local car boot sale.


Copies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea decorate the bathroom


“I’d seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica but I hadn’t realised that the Vatican is painted throughout... even the Pope’s bathroom. I was blown away by it. I began to wonder whether I had it in me to do something similar in my own style.”




This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #118.

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