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Built with 'blood, sweat and alimony': But now Anne Robinson's ex-husband wants to sell his £1.1m art gallery

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Built with 'blood, sweat and alimony': But now Anne Robinson's ex-husband wants to sell his £1.1m art gallery

By Sebastian O'kelly
Updated: 17:24 BST, 23 May 2011


The weakest link: Ann Robinson and her ex-husband John Penrose who she is supposed to have paid around £20 million in alimony

When Anne Robinson formally opened her ex-husband's art gallery in a Georgian townhouse in the centre of Cirencester, on which he had lavished hundreds of thousands in refurbishment - the stress of it all bringing on a heart attack - appropriate words quickly tripped off her tongue.

‘This is a triumph of blood, sweat .

. . and alimony,' said The Weakest Link's presenter, referring to the £20 million or so - one third of her fortune - that she supposedly paid to John Penrose, her husband of 27 years. He denies receiving anything like this sum.

After the couple split in 2007, Penrose, now 65, felt in need of an occupation and alternative accommodation, so he quickly bought up an old antiques shop in the Cotswold town, along with four grotty flats above that had been cheaply converted in the Seventies.

The clavon condo price was £635,000 and Penrose then proceeded to blow a small fortune making good the building with steel beams and turning the upstairs into the kind of swish, high-tech bachelor pad that you are more likely to find in Notting Hill.

The Dollar Street Gallery finally opened in 2009 to a group of Gloucestershire's fashionable second-homers, refreshed by 200 bottles of Krug and entertained by the ex-Mrs Penrose's barbed wit.

‘It was not strictly necessary for me to set up as a gallery owner, but I thought it would be fun and a bit of philanthropy towards the arts - and it was fun, until I had a heart attack,' says Penrose.

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‘I had always decided that I would put quality of life first, but I am now heeding the doctor's advice,' he says, pulling out a litre bottle of excellent rosé from the fridge - shortly after midday.

Too many trips in the back of an ambulance of late have made him reconsider his priorities, so he is trying to lose a couple of stone and, sadly, must lay down the burden of running his gallery, which also employs two staff.

‘Had I been ten years younger, it would have been wonderful,' he says, but now the plan is to sell the flat and gallery for £1.15 million and represent ‘four or five artists' and sell their works online.

As for his ex-wife - whose fortune has been put at £60 million and whose own property interests include a Kensington townhouse, a cottage in Gloucestershire, a penthouse in New York and a mansion on Long Island - she ‘could not have been more supportive,' says Penrose.

‘We still see an awful lot of each other and she is my best customer at the gallery.' Indeed, over lunch there is a buzz of solicitous texts from the ‘Queen of Mean', who obviously still frets over her recklessly bonhomous ex-husband.

Art house: The £1.1million Georgian gallery in Cirencester that John Penrose has put on the market

The couple go back to September 1966 when 19-year-old John Penrose was a local reporter on the Islington Gazette driving off to his stories in a Triumph Herald.

He did extra shifts at a North London news agency and one day one of his leery chums called him over to check out someone they almost certainly did not refer to as ‘a new female work colleague'.

‘There was this red-haired bint wearing a mini skirt, with chubby thighs and driving a green MG,' he recalls. ‘She was incredibly sexy.'

They went out for a while, but later Anne rose through Fleet Street, married the future editor of The Times, Charles Wilson, had a daughter, and later fell into a trough of alcoholism, ending her first marriage and losing custody of her child.
All of which she told in her unflinchingly brave Memoirs Of An Unfit Mother. By the time she and John Penrose married in 1980, she was off the drink and rising high, presenting BBC's Points Of View and Watchdog.

‘Johnny' and ‘Annie', as they refer to each other, divided their time between a London house and a bungalow in Gloucestershire.

Then in January 2000 came the BBC offer to present a new quiz show, The Weakest Link - apparently because the corporation bureaucrats thought she would be ‘sympathetic enough to ease the disappointments of those who are voted off'.

The show went on air in August and, aged 55, Anne Robinson became a TV sensation. By the following year she was presenting it on NBC in America.

Last month Anne revealed she had decided to quit The Weakest Link and the BBC announced, after 1,693 shows, it was not going to replace her and would axe it.

Bachelor pad: The main penrose in John Penrose's flat about the art gallery

Robinson's transformation into an international media star resulted in a shift in gear at the Penroses' Gloucestershire lodgings.

The bungalow they had bought in 1992 in Ablington, three miles from Cirencester, was transformed into ‘a ridiculous monument to aggrandise her life'.

The place was flattened and a new house three times the size at 10,000 sq-ft was built, fitted out with trimmings such as an indoor swimming pool with underwater loudspeakers.

As Robinson now suffers from tinnitus and is deaf in one ear, one wonders whether these home improvements weren't the cause.

‘Perhaps they were,' says her ex-husband, disloyally. The mansion was sold in 2008 for £3.5 million.

While Robinson relished her autumnal fame, Penrose was always happiest in the country - though, being a non-drinker herself, Anne has moaned publicly about his fondness for the odd bottle of red.

The plan now is for him to find another flat in Cirencester, although his ex-wife is bound to figure largely.

The obvious course would be to rent out the gallery for £20,000 a year and stay put, but Penrose is a compulsive house restorer and can't be bothered with having a tenant below.

Sam Butler, of selling agents Butler Sherborn, agrees that Penrose has spent more on the place than he will make on the sale.

‘I see it appealing to someone like John - a high-end antiques dealer perhaps, rather than an investor,' he says.

A few years back there was talk of making a film of Memoirs Of An Unfit Mother and Hugh Bonneville, the star of Downton Abbey, agreed to play the part of Penrose.

‘It would have been great although Bonneville has filled out a lot, as we saw in Downton,' says Penrose.

Butler Sherborn, 01285 883740