Banksy: Reading prison painting explained as anonymous artist takes credit – what is the jail’s connection to Oscar Wilde?

The artwork features on the outside wall of the derelict prison where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned

Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 12:52 pm
Updated Friday, 5th March 2021, 9:01 am
Banksy has yet to confirm whether he painted the prisoner escaping on the HMP Reading wall (Picture: BBC)

Anonymous artist Banksy has confirmed a new painting which has featured on the outside wall of HMP Reading is his latest piece of public art.

The painting has attracted the attention of Banksy enthusiasts and some have considered it to be a tribute to Oscar Wilde, who spent time at the prison.

So, why has he painted it on the prison’s wall and what does it represent? This is what we know so far.

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What does the painting represent?

On 1 March, a painting of a prisoner escaping on a rope made of bedsheets, tied to a typewriter appeared on the wall which surrounds HMP Reading.

The prison housed Irish poet and playwrite Oscar Wilde from 1985 to 1987, after he was charged with sodomy.

The writer of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest was arrested after a feud with Sir John Sholto Douglas, whose son was revealed as having had sexual relations with Wilde.

While there is speculation that the painting is a tribute to him, others have suggested that it could be a reference to the ongoing dispute between Facebook and the media - the social media site pulled all news for Australian publications from it’s platform after refusing to pay for content.

What is the former prison used for now?

The prison has not been in use since 2013 and was put up for sale by the government in 2019.

A previous attempt to sell the Grade II-listed building to developers fell through last year and Reading council said it hoped to turn the site into an arts complex.

By 15 March, The Ministry of Justice will have to determine whether the building will become an arts venue.

Reading East MP Matt Rodda commented on the artwork before Banksy had confirmed it was his work, she suggested it was in support of the arts centre.

She said: "I'd like to thank Banksy, or whoever else painted this, for their support for the campaign to save Reading Gaol... This unique historic building should be saved for future generations."

Toby Davies, artistic director of the Reading-based Rabble Theatre, said "It adds real kudos to the whole campaign to have someone who knows a thing or two about culture take a risk and come and do this on a Ministry of Justice building.

"It is phenomenal, it really displays how much it means to people.

"Whenever I speak to people, not just those in the culture world but those who walk past it every single day, they get very emotional about it.

"Reading has never had the opportunity to have a go at an international culture centre that brings people together.

"It should be a bubbling centre of UK culture but it isn't and that's because we've never been given a chance.

"If there was ever a chance then this is it and it won't come again."

Banksy expert and vice-chancellor of Arts University Bournemouth, Professor Paul Gough, also suggested it could be related to the arts project, or the ongoing dispute between the media and Facebook.

He said: "It's possibly a comment on the prison's potential use as an arts centre, but the fact that it's got a type-writer and that it's all about paper and writing might be some sort of commentary on what's happening with news media and Facebook."

Was the illustration painted by Banksy?

Banksy has now officially taken credit for the painting, confirming it on his Instagram on 4 March.

Prof Gough said the painting “draws attention to the town,” and added: “It brings people out on the street, they then have a conversation and so public art is suddenly given a foreground at a time when people do want that level of diversion” - and I think that's terrific."

What other recent art has been attributed to Banksy?

In December 2020, Banksy took ownership of a painting which appeared on the side of a Bristol house, titled “Aachoo!!"

The painting showed an elderly woman sneezing, with her dentures and cough particles escaping into the air.

The family who lived in the house were in the process of selling, and although the sale went through the art was protected with an acrylic cover and security system installed.

In July 2020, a pandemic-inspired piece by Banksy encouraging people to wear face masks was stencilled on a Tube train in London.

Banksy named the painting “If You Don't Mask - You Don't Get”, and it featured a number of rats wearing face masks.

The painting was removed as Transport for London did not want copycats or people to feel Banksy’s graffiti was treated any differently from others.

In May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Banksy also painted and donated a piece of artwork to the NHS.

The elusive artist created “Game Changer” which went on display in a corridor at Southampton general hospital.

It shows a boy dressed in dungarees playing with a nurse superhero toy, with figures of Batman and Spider-Man discarded in a bin.

The boy appears to be making the nurse fly, while she wears a cape and stretches one arm out in front in a superman pose.

Banksy left a note for hospital workers, saying: “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”