For the first time ever, Reading Gaol has been opened to the public, particularly poignant as it coincides with a magnificent Artangel – Inside: Writers and Artists in Reading Prison, an exhibition of new works that have been created in response to the prison’s architecture and history. Leading artists, writers and filmmakers that include Steve McQueen, Marlene Dumas, Nan Goldin, Robert Gober, Jeannette Winterson and many more have produced work that has been installed in the prison cells, wings and corridors.
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.
From ‘The Ballad of Reading Goal’ by Oscar Wilde.
I have to admit, it was a spine-tingling moment to stand in Prison Cell C.2.2. – no matter how much it might have changed (or not!) over the years since 1897 when Wilde was released from his two-year sentence. I also still find it difficult to believe that the prison was only closed in 2013!
For much of his time there, Oscar was not even allowed to write, but with a change of Governor, was eventually given access to enough paper to complete De Profundis, a letter written to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
“Inside the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers, as of a thousand lifeless lives.”
From De Profundis, 1897. Oscar Wilde.
The current exhibition provides audio recordings of De Profundis from Colm Tóibín, Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Neil Bartlett, Kathryn Hunter and many more.
The books that Oscar requested and was eventually allowed to have in his cell. He deliberately avoided asking for any titles that might have been viewed as contentious.
You can check out further details of the ‘Artangel’ Exhibition HERE