Banksy offers to help buy HMP Reading to turn it into arts centre

Banksy offers to help buy HMP Reading to turn it into arts centre

December 5, 2021

Banksy offers to help buy HMP Reading where Oscar Wilde was held to turn it into arts centre by selling rare stencil of work he painted on its side

  • Street artist offered to sell a stencil used to create prison artwork to fund project
  • Bristol-based graffiti artist wants to help turn disused prison into an arts centre
  • Stencil used to create HMP Reading work has an estimated value of up to £15m 

Banksy has offered to raise £10million to buy the prison which once held Oscar Wilde and was adorned with artwork by the street artist earlier this year. 

Developers had planned to turn HMP Reading into flats but plans fell through due to heritage issues over the site, which has been disused since 2013.

As a result, the prison went back on the market for £10million and Banksy has offered to raise the funds by selling the stencil he used to paint a mural on the wall of the Grade II listed building in March this year.

The stencil has an estimated value of between £10million and £15million and will be sold privately and not at auction.

It is understood the offer is contingent on the site being used as an arts complex, in line with a £2.6million bid made by Reading Borough Council last year which was rejected by the Ministry of Justice.

Bristol based artist Banksy has offered to raise £10million to buy Reading Prison which once held Oscar Wilde and was adorned with artwork by the street artist earlier this year (pictured)

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Banksy said: ‘I had very little interest in Reading until I was on a rail replacement bus service that went past the jail.

‘It’s rare to find an uninterrupted 500m-long paintable surface slap bang in the middle of a town; I literally clambered over the passenger next to me to get a closer look.

‘I promised myself I’d paint the wall even before I knew what it was. I’m passionate about it now, though.

‘Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic. Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.’ 

Banksy has only sold one stencil before, making it his rarest art form, while the record for a Banksy work stands at £18.5million.

The record was set for Love is in the Bin at Sotheby’s in October -which is the remains of a piece that was partially shredded during an auction in 2018.

Banksy says he will fund the purchase by selling the stencil he used to paint ‘Create Escape’ on the prison wall earlier this year (pictured) which has an estimated value of up to £15million

Reading Borough Council had submitted a bid to buy the prison last year to convert it into an arts centre but the bid was rejected by the Ministry of Justice and it went back on the market

Built in 1844 and formerly known as Reading Gaol, the council has long lobbied for the site to be turned into an arts centre celebrating its heritage.

Reading Prison is renowned as the location where Oscar Wilde served two years’ hard labour for ‘gross indecency’ from 1895 to 1897 and is the subject of his poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.

The Ballad Of Reading Gaol 

In 1985, Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Prison.

While he was in there, an inmate was executed for killing his wife.

On Wilde’s release, he penned the Ballad of Reading Gaol which narrates the execution of this prisoner and provides a symbolic story-telling which highlights the brutalisation of prisoners’ punishment.

 It’s most famous lines include:

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves

‘By each let this be heard,

‘Some do it with a bitter look,

‘Some with a flattering word,

‘The coward does it with a kiss,

‘The brave man with a sword!’

Earlier this year, Banksy created his work ‘Create Escape’ on the wall of the prison which is thought to be a nod to the fact it once housed Wilde.

The artwork, on the red brick wall of the former Reading Prison, showed an inmate escaping lockdown using a knotted spool of paper from a typewriter.

It appeared on March 1 and was officially confirmed as a Banksy on March 4, when the elusive artist posted a video on his Instagram account. 

The video is set to archive commentary from an episode of The Joy Of Painting with Bob Ross.

It shows Banksy picking up and carrying a ladder, then picking out spray cans, in the dark.

Banksy places a stencil for the piece – which he now intends to sell – over the wall of Reading Prison and sprays it with paint.

Although the site closed to prisoners in 2013, its future has been the focus of fierce debate ever since.

The campaign to turn the site into an arts hub has won the support of Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Natalie Dormer and Kate Winslet.

Other notable former inmates include heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua who was remanded there as a teenager in 2009 and the Victorian serial killer Amelia Dyer who was said to have murdered up to 400 babies.

The jail was built on the site of the medieval Reading Abbey, a monastery founded by Henry I – son of William the Conqueror.

Henry is believed to have been buried under the altar, now thought to be under the prison car park or walls.

Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East, said the concept of using the prison to house arts has been proved by past exhibitions and he planned to raise an urgent question in Parliament this week to put ministers ‘on the spot’ with the offer.

He added: ‘There are these amazing layers of history – there’s the literary history and the LGBT community history, and the link to Oscar Wilde. But there’s also some local and national Victorian social history and there’s the link to the Royal Family all in one building and it’s so well connected to the rest of country.

‘For so many reasons it’s absolutely right this building is preserved and used in a constructive way rather that just being gutted and turned into flats or some other thing.’

Jason Brock, Reading Borough Council leader, said: ‘We very much welcome the attention that Banksy’s interest in Reading Gaol has placed on both the MoJ’s (Ministry of Justice’s) sale of the vacant prison and on the council’s ambition to transform it into an hub of arts, heritage and culture of local and national significance.

‘The council has had only informal approaches from representatives of Banksy to date, but no detailed discussions.

‘Our bid remains firmly on the table and has widespread support – both from within the community here in Reading and from the wider arts, heritage and cultural community – all of whom recognise the prison’s huge historical and cultural value.’

The MoJ said: ‘The deadline for bids has passed and we are currently considering the ones we received.’ 

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