Curation and commentary by Linda Saul
Augmented Reality by Ken Mawbey, VisiAR


Reading Guild of Artists issued a challenge to all its members to produce artwork inspired by Reading Gaol. This exhibition is made up of those challenge responses and other works produced by members over the past few years and included by invitation. The exhibition is in two parts – the online exhibition here and an augmented reality display of (some of) the works which can be accessed …

Reading Gaol is an icon of literature, gay rights and prison reform, thanks to Oscar Wilde who wrote De Profundis whilst incarcerated there and The Ballad of Reading Gaol after his release. The prison closed in 2013. In 2016 Artangel hosted an art exhibition Inside at Reading Gaol, a rare opportunity for the general public to get inside the gaol. To some visitors, myself included, the building itself was perhaps the star of the show.

Jenny Halstead’s view of the interior was one of several works produced as a result of the opening in 2016.

Other creative endeavours relating to Reading Gaol have been frustrated by the lack of access, even within the prison walls. Most views of the Reading Gaol therefore show the Victorian building peeping over the massive walls such as this series from Michal Garraway.

The Gaol

The Reading Gaol building as we know it today was built in 1844, designed by Gilbert Scott, on the site of an earlier prison and within the grounds of Reading Abbey which (founded in 1121 by Henry I). The abbey’s high altar, in front of which Henry was buried, lies within the prison grounds.

Reading Gaol was designed as a cruciform shape to support the cruel Victorian separate system which prevented prisoners from being able to communicate with each other. Even the ability to catch each other’s eye whilst exercising was prevented by the peaked caps that the prisoners wore preventing them from looking up. 

I visited Reading Prison when it was open to the public in 2016. I was fascinated by the traces of those who had once been incarcerated there – not only Oscar Wilde but other Victorian prisoners as well as more recent inmates. 

I took loads of photographs during that visit and subsequently made a series of works inspired by those images. ‘Adults only’ was a fragment of a newspaper stuck to the wall of one of the cells and my work is an ironic reference to the fact that the prison in its final years housed young offenders.

‘Free with my dreams’ is a series of works inspired by words incised into the wall of another cell. I printed these works using a polystyrene plate as I was aiming for the print to be uncomplicated and a bit rough. 

The series of linocuts and the painting relating to hands were inspired by mugshots of Victorian prisoners who were photographed with their hands in front of their chest – at that time (before fingerprinting) hands were the distinguishing feature.

Liz Real

In more recent years Reading Gaol was a young offenders institution. It was finally closed when the last inmates left in 2013.

Oscar Wilde

Reading Gaol’s most famous inmate was Oscar Wilde, incarcerated at Reading between 1895 and 1897 for “gross indecency” i.e. homosexuality. Whilst in the gaol he wrote de Profundus and after his release The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

This is a life-size sewing pattern for Victorian gaol garb consisting of britches and waistcoat printed onto linen. This was originally made for the exhibition In Reading Gaol by Reading Town at The Turbine House, Reading Museum.

Chris Mercier

This piece includes quotes and words from de Profundis, the letter/essay Oscar Wilde wrote over his years of imprisonment on a drawing of Wilde’s cell door. 

Suzanne London

The Ballad of Reading gaol was published by Oscar Wilde under the pseudonym name “C.3.3”. C.3.3 stands for his cell number, the landing it was on and the block it was situated on.

Samar Zeeshan

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde’s famous ballad describes an execution held at Reading Gaol and the effect it had on other prisoners. It is very dark, and very visual so a great inspiration for artists.

I never saw a man who looked 
With such a wistful eye 
Upon that little tent of blue 
Which prisoners call the sky, 
And at every wandering cloud that trailed 
Its ravelled fleeces by. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

My initial thoughts in response to The Ballad of Reading Gaol were to consider the word ‘ballad’ – a simple song, often with a refrain, with an overall moral dimension.

As a medium to work in, I chose monotype – this seemed appropriate for its immediacy – a one-off process of printing, a single pull, which connected with the immediacy of the process described in the poem.

The style of my piece is brutal, and unrefined. 

The shapes on either side indicate an inverted tent:  ‘….the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky’.

I wanted to consider the moment, on the stroke of eight, on the critical cusp – alive, then … no longer alive – the rope still swinging, and the haunting line ‘nimble feet to dance upon the air’ contrasts with the horror of execution.”

Jenny Halstead

It is sweet to dance to violins 
When Love and Life are fair: 
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes 
Is delicate and rare: 
But it is not sweet with nimble feet 
To dance upon the air! 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

He lay as one who lies and dreams 
In a pleasant meadow-land, 
The watchers watched him as he slept, 
And could not understand 
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep 
With a hangman close at hand. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The gray cock crew, the red cock crew, 
But never came the day: 
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched, 
In the corners where we lay: 
And each evil sprite that walks by night 
Before us seemed to play. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

He does not know that sickening thirst 
That sands one’s throat, before 
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves 
Slips through the padded door, 
And binds one with three leathern thongs, 
That the throat may thirst no more. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Ballad of Reading Gaol conjured up vivid images. In particular, the horror of waiting to be hung, of other prisoners waiting for the hanging to take place, & that the ‘watchers watched him sleep’ as they peer through the gaol door hatch in case he might kill himself first. In the image the ‘Hangman with his garden gloves’ walks, holding the leather straps which will bind the prisoner prior to hanging him. Bottom right are three wilting seedlings, indicating that those hung were buried in quicklime where ‘nothing can be grown nearby for three years’.

Carole Pembrooke (1943 – 2022)

At last I saw the shadowed bars, 
Like a lattice wrought in lead, 
Move right across the whitewashed wall 
That faced my three-plank bed, 
And I knew that somewhere in the world 
God’s dreadful dawn was red. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

I had a clear image in my head of Oscar Wilde’s cell as we know it today, but it was only after reading the Ballad that the image of a slightly faded transparent figure of a past prisoner emerged, sitting in despair. Originally thinking I’d do a linocut print, whilst doing some preparatory sketches, for additional inspiration, I looked at the prisoner works of a favourite artist A. Paul Weber, best known for his dark social commentary lithographs. This is the mixed media piece that developed. The viewer is kept at a distance and needs to peer through a slightly grubby grill, intrigued by what’s inside.

Martina Hildebrandt

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The cruelty of the Victorian prison system is brought vividly to life when you read The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The phrase “separate Hell” occurs twice in the Ballad. I assume the rhyme  between “hell” and the unspoken “cell” is deliberate and that “separate” is a reference to the separate system that kept prisoners isolated and unable to communicate.

The figure is wearing a Scotch cap, designed to stop prisoners from being able to make eye contact with each other.

Linda Saul

In Reading gaol by Reading town 
There is a pit of shame, 
And in it lies a wretched man 
Eaten by teeth of flame, 
In a burning winding-sheet he lies, 
And his grave has got no name. 

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

In 2018 about 70 artists in the Reading area, including many RGA members, created ‘Lilies for Oscar Wilde’. Each lily was to pay tribute to a piece of Oscar Wilde’s writing. This one was inspired by The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The lilies were displayed in a stunning “floral arrangement” at Reading Museum before some were auctioned to raise money for charity. I tried to get access to photograph some in situ in the gaol, but to no avail. 

Linda Saul

Save Reading Gaol campaign

Many in Reading shared a vision of Reading Gaol as an arts centre, especially as it was used to host the Inside exhibition so successfully. We imagined a cultural venue celebrating all the arts in Reading and paying tribute to the rich history of the site.

I went to the Artangel exhibition at Reading Gaol which was a tribute to Oscar Wilde and his incarceration. I was inspired by the exhibition and the history of the Gaol. I also attended the Hug around the Gaol and have followed the campaign. During Lockdown I wrote these two haikus celebrating Oscar and the campaign. I’ve now incorporated them into a painting highlighting what could become a vibrant community centre for the Arts with a little imagination and support.
Oscar Wilde is one of our foremost literary figures who was judged harshly; in these more enlightened times it is a chance to celebrate his life with a Community Arts Centre. Social interaction and participation in the Arts are key to the mental health of society.

Jan Bastow

In 2019 local MP Matt Rodda started a petition, and in October of that year, I organised the “Reading Gaol Hug” which involved about 1000 people surrounding the Gaol with linked hands in the rain – just months before hugging and holding hands with strangers became illegal. This event included our two local MPs in a welcome show of unity.

RGA member Sally Castle designed a logo that was printed on 100 T-shirts financed by an anonymous donor. The T-shirts were sold to raise funds to cover the organisational costs of the “Hug”. A slightly modified version of this subsequently became the official Save Reading Gaol logo.

A follow-up event, a March to the Gaol, was planned for March 2020 and would have been a lively event with bands, choirs, puppeteers, and dancers performing. Unfortunately, the organisers had no choice but to cancel at the last minute due to the unfolding COVID crisis. A virtual march was held online instead.

The planned March to the Gaol eventually happened on 25th March 2023.

The appearance of the Banksy mural Create Escape in March 2021 lifted spirits at a time when the COVID epidemic was still raging. It was seen by many as not only a gift to the Town but a sign of endorsement for the Save Reading Gaol campaign. Subsequently, Banksy tried to support the campaign, offering the proceeds of the sale of the stencil for Create Escape towards creating an arts centre.

Unfortunately, the bidding process had finished at this time and the MoJ couldn’t be persuaded to reopen them despite concerted efforts by our two MPs, Banksy, and others.

The RGA tried to contact Banksy to offer him honorary, or, if he preferred, dishonorary membership. We didn’t hear back!

Last words

Many RGA artists have supported the campaign to save Reading Gaol over the years. A major incentive for us has been the lack of a decent-sized art centre in Reading. There is no hireable exhibition space in the centre of town large enough to accommodate an RGA exhibition. The dream was of a large exhibition space in a vibrant arts centre supporting all the diverse arts pursued by Reading’s inhabitants and celebrating the unique history of the site. There is some optimism that the new owners, the Ziran Foundation, wish to provide some exhibition opportunities at the site.

My piece is inspired by the Oscar Wilde quote “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.

Jayne Kozlow

I was in the car with my husband driving to Hobbycraft then onto Oxford road to stock up on indian spices. The culture, history, art, religion, fast food all popped up in my arty mind !

Mary Law

Further Information

Two Rivers Press have an edition of the Ballad of Reading Gaol and a short history of Reading Gaol (which includes reproductions of a handlful of the images here) in their catalogue.

Some of the featured artworks will be on display at the RGA’s 93rd exhibition Collaboration at Reading University.

Purchase of Artworks

Some of the artworks in this exhibition may be available for sale. If you are interested in purchasing an artwork you should contact the artist directly. Contact details for artists are available in their members’ gallery. If an artist has a members’ gallery, it can be accessed by clicking on the artist’s name under the image of their work. If the artist does not have a members’ gallery, please contact us.

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