Banksy's Reading Jail stunt could be his finest contribution to British culture

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Dominic Cavendish
·7 min read
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The Bansky painting on the side of Reading Jail
The Bansky painting on the side of Reading Jail

So, Banksy has achieved what Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Fry could not: turned a huge spotlight on the threat of inappropriate development that hangs over the defunct HM Prison Reading, long and still colloquially known as Reading Gaol.

The three actors – Grade I-listed household-names – have each issued eloquent pleas on behalf of a local campaign to convert for lasting cultural use a building immortalised through its unhappy association with Oscar Wilde.

The literary legacy of that 18-month incarceration – most obviously De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Goal – alone speaks volumes on its behalf. Fry, of course, has played Wilde, and at times seems to embody his spirit more than any man on Earth; Dench herself was a memorable Lady Bracknell.

But this week proved the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. All their considered pleas – “Flowers can grow out of manure” (Fry); “Let its restoration and transformation be the driver of increased economic, social, and cultural power” (Branagh); “I think it is vitally important that Reading Gaol, a place of such culture, be used in a way that pays tribute to its artistic history” (Dench) – were upstaged by a playful, witty epigram of an image.

Suspicion that the globally renowned graffiti artist was behind the mural that materialised on one of the high red-brick perimeter walls on Monday March 1 was confirmed on Thursday via a short video entitled “The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross and Banksy”.

Old clips of Ross, a bearded Eighties American TV art instructor, who died in 1995, were intercut with nocturnal footage of the anonymous activist-minded Bristolian spray-painting intricate stencils at impressive speed.

The result: a striking, viral-friendly visual (dubbed Create Escape) of a uniformed prisoner descending the wall on a sheet weighted with an old typewriter (the imaginative daring cemented by the morphing of knotted bed-sheet into typing paper).

Message received loud and clear: art releases us from wretched lonely, cell-like confinement; and if you wanted to read between the lines with an eye for fine detail, you could note that typewriters were coming into mass use from the mid-1880s on (Wilde’s sojourn was November 1895 to May 1897).

Aside from the immediate question as to what to do with this pop-up art-work now (the video showed non-plussed police officers in first-response attendance), it throws down the provocation as to what should happen to the building going forward.

The ins and out are quite convoluted, but essentially after initial hopes that the old prison might be converted into a theatre following its closure in January 2014, the Government announced that it would be sold to housing developers.

A picture of Oscar Wilde hangs inside a cell inside the former Reading prison as part of a 2016 art project - Getty
A picture of Oscar Wilde hangs inside a cell inside the former Reading prison as part of a 2016 art project - Getty

A temporary reprieve was granted via the Reading 2016 Year of Culture programme (all kinds of Wilde-related happenings took place inside, thanks to Art Angel). But the housing scheme idea resurfaced: last April, the borough council’s bid to buy the building for use as an art centre failed, albeit the successful developer was to be compelled to protect the site’s historical, archaeological and cultural value.

In a sudden twist, prospective buyer Artisan Real Estate pulled out at the end of the year, resulting in local MP Alok Sharma (former Business Secretary) confirming that the council could once again develop a business case – the time-period for that process just recently extended.

This sort of amenity controversy/consultation can prove dreary-some to even the most committed bystander; it can take an artist to galvanise the debate. But a debate there must be, and it’s one that takes in vital societal questions. The word ‘regeneration’ has been dulled by over-use but it often entails a radical act of imaginative transformation.

A building loses its foundational function, stays standing but gets sensitively re-purposed in a way that opens its spaces up. It becomes a beacon of civic creativity, making everyone who encounters it re-evaluate it: consider its current use and prior identity - that dynamic gradually evolving a broad cultural conversation between past, present and future.

Reading Gaol in 1844 - Getty
Reading Gaol in 1844 - Getty

Sure, there will be (and also not) a need for big (Guggenheim museum) Bilbao-style statements. Costly ‘starchitect’ buildings landing with an ostentatious splash in local settings can be vulgar, but also be valuably disruptive; witness the staying power of Leicester’s massy Curve theatre, which initially looked like a white elephant but has proved its cultural worth for all its financial cost. But some of the biggest success stories are the most organic.

The metamorphosis of the old Battersea Town Hall into Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) continues to feel – despite dating back to the 70s and 80s– like a continued act of trespass and reclamation; the indelible air of local municipal power charges it with an atmosphere of civilian self-empowerment.

In the case of Reading Gaol, we’re not just talking about a reconstitution but an act of rehabilitation – for the society that gave it its notoriety. It’s heinous enough that, say, that erstwhile palace of pleasure, the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester, should have been turned into unremarkable housing. But to dwindle a Victorian house of correction (with all the viciousness that went hand in hand with that moral order) into something nondescript would be a criminal act of vandalism and erasure.

Reading Jail in 2016 - Alamy
Reading Jail in 2016 - Alamy

The proposed arts hub for Reading would be a place of ghosts, and rightly so: a memorial not only to the injustice that Wilde suffered, but to the violence of capital punishment, and institutional cruelty to children.

The Ballad of Reading Goal was inspired by the hanging of a trooper (Charles Thomas Wooldridge) convicted for the murder of his wife. Prior to 1862, when a filicidal murderer was hanged in front of 4000 people, the gallows were a form of grisly theatre. Wilde was moved by the plight of the children he saw; the youngest to be jailed at Reading was a seven-year-old arsonist in 1844. All this needs to be commemorated, at least not interred beyond any tangible grasp.

There are other architectural and heritage reasons why Reading Gaol shouldn’t be dismantled without a struggle: the grim fact that George Gilbert Scott (one of the most prominent architects of his age) and William Boynthon Moffatt’s building was a pioneering type, using a radial plan to keep separated inmates under surrvillance. A further morbid point of historical interest was unearthed in 2016, when the suspected remains of Henry I were discovered in an adjacent car-park.

The Banksy shortly after it appeared at Reading Jail on March 2 - AFP
The Banksy shortly after it appeared at Reading Jail on March 2 - AFP

As a child in the Seventies, visiting my Polish refugee grandparents, who lived and had run a hotel round the corner on the King’s Road, my father would sometimes recite lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol as we drove past and had a collective shudder at its formidable exterior.– “I never saw a man who looked/ With such a wistful eye/ Upon that little tent of blue/ Which prisoners call the sky”.

Wilde bore witness to others' suffering and his own, and turned grey despair into phrases poetic and colourful. There couldn’t be a much more fitting tribute to him than to effect a similar alchemy with his former place of torment, which left him at mental breaking point and physically impaired (his eyesight blurred by gas-jets, his abscessed ear an agony).

The commercial case is more robust than you might think; what with Crossrail and an existing Wilde memorial walk, this unloved part of town could wind up on the tourist trail. But the broader rationale matters most. Housing is always a pressing concern, but this is about maintaining the edifice of our social memory; it's about answering the needs of a community, and speaking up for humanity itself.