“Inside” – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison

by Micaela Stanley


Photographs of prisoners in Reading Gaol before their discharge or transfer. Photo © Berkshire Record Office, courtesy of Artangel (via Artnet)


The Ballad of Reading Goal manuscript. Photo ©The British Library Board, courtesy of Artangel (via Artnet)


Oscar Wilde’s cell at Reading. Photo Morley von Sternberg, courtesy of Artangel (via Artnet)

“Inside” – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison

A collective of artists will pay homage to Oscar Wilde with a new initiative

Art is the most beautiful form of escapism. It allows humans to emote, grow, and discover without having to leave the confines of a particular place, and in a place as secluded as a prison, art is not only a way to escape, it becomes a way to survive.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde survived through the creation of art when he became an inmate at the Reading Gaol, where he spent three years in isolation under the prison’s Separate System. Within this isolation, Wilde sought out art as a way to escape the suffering. He did this by creating some of his most moving pieces, including the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, of which he wrote after his release.

Over a century after the infamous incarceration, artists are once again inhabiting the Reading Prison, transforming the institution into an initiative titled, “Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison.” The initiative will feature artists such as Marlene Dumas, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen, Jean-Michel Pancin, and Wolfgang Tillmans, all of whom will be presenting art centered around Wilde’s work, prison itself, and the general themes of isolation and imprisonment.

The seemingly absurd juxtaposition of art in a prison is counteracted by the logic of such a match as it is at the lowest points that the human need for art and beauty is realized. In De Profundis, the letter written to his lover during his incarceration, Wilde put it best when he wrote, “The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.”

At Inside, Wilde’s spirit will be surrounded only by the artists that understand the importance of creativity. They will transform the once contemptuous scene of suppression into an outlet for art and a celebration of the artists who are free to create it.