Reading Gaol, Where Oscar Wilde Was Imprisoned, Unlocks Its Gates For Art

Oct 20, 2016
Originally published on October 24, 2016 11:08 am

Beneath Gothic arches and metal walkways, a place of torment has been reclaimed as a place of creative ferment. In 1895, celebrated writer Oscar Wilde — author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray -- was convicted of homosexual activity and sentenced to two years, most of which he spent in the infamous Reading Gaol.

The British prison, which was operational until 2013, has just reopened for an unusual art exhibition; "Inside" features installations and texts inspired by the prison and Wilde's experiences there.

Cells where solitary prisoners counted down the days are now filled with art. In one, artist and film director Steve McQueen has draped a gold-plated mosquito net over a bare metal bunk bed. In another, a river flows through the torso of a woman in a diorama by American sculptor Robert Gober. In another, Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, are reunited in a diptych by Marlene Dumas. The organization behind it all is called Artangel — it specializes in bringing cutting-edge art into unused and unusual spaces.

In the 1980s, nearly 100 years after Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, Gawain Davis spent three months in the prison for cannabis possession. Leaning over a display case of mug shots of Wilde's fellow prisoners, Davis observes: "They look like the same sort of people that I was back in here with, 100 years later!"

Like Wilde, Davis spent 23 hours a day in his cell. The only sanitation was a bucket he had to empty — or "slop out" — himself: "You were unlocked, let down for breakfast, locked back up again to eat it, unlocked again to slop out, to empty the bucket, then locked up again," Davis recalls.

A miserable existence for sure, but Davis says Wilde had it worse — in Wilde's day, prisoners weren't even allowed to talk.

When Wilde arrived, Reading Gaol was one great Victorian machine of Christian penance, forcing prisoners to meditate on their crimes in silence, while performing physical labor amid the reek of their own waste.

The privations broke Wilde — but they also inspired his last work, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which was written after his release. In those two years behind bars, letters were all he was permitted to write.

Several cells are filled with the sounds of "Letters of Separation," named after this form of imprisonment. In one cell, artist Ai Wei Wei is heard reading aloud a letter to his son about his imprisonment in China. In another, playwright Gillian Slovo addresses her dead mother, Ruth First, who was imprisoned and then assassinated under South Africa's Apartheid regime.

All the letters honor the one that inspired them: Wilde's De Profundis — "from the depths" — the 50,000-word letter he wrote to Bosie, his lover and betrayer.

Every Sunday, a different performer reads the entire 6-hour text aloud, in front of the original door to Wilde's cell. Artangel co-director James Lingwood says it wasn't hard to enlist an A-list cast of readers — including Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Patti Smith; all they had to do was reach out to those who've cited Wilde as an influence.

"Almost without any exception they embraced the idea," Lingwood says. "Because when else would you get the chance to kind of come to terms and pay homage to Oscar Wilde within the very place where he wrote this compelling, extended love letter?"

Lingwood has been struck by how much time visitors are spending at the exhibition. Jenny Welsh, a retired chaplain who's worked at other prisons, traveled 40 miles to visit the jail. She found that the artwork that evoked the isolation of imprisonment was particularly powerful for her.

Her husband, Phillip Welsh, a retired clergyman, says the highlight for him was the renewed sense of connection with Wilde.

"It was standing in his cell and looking out at the same window and seeing the same patch of sky that he wrote about," he says.

Wilde's cell — number C.3.3. — is the only one without an original art work. In one corner, visitors have left some flowers.

But in a sense, this entire exhibition is a floral offering to an artist seen as a martyr for loving, and living, in the wrong time, and the wrong place.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In 1895, Oscar Wilde, one of the most celebrated writers of his time, was convicted of homosexual activity and sentenced to two years in jail. Now the author of "The Importance Of Being Earnest" and "The Picture Of Dorian Gray" might be pardoned. The British Ministry of Justice said today it would posthumously pardon people convicted of sexual acts that are no longer illegal.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Wilde spent his incarceration at Britain's notorious Reading Jail, a place that closed just three years ago. Now the jail has reopened for an art exhibition inspired by Wilde's experiences at the prison. Vicki Barker reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Beneath these gothic arches and metal walkways, cells where solitary prisoners counted down the days are now filled with artworks and installations. In one, artist and film director Steve McQueen has draped a gold-plated mosquito net over a bare metal bunk bed. In another, Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, are reunited in a diptych by Marlene Dumas.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

BARKER: On the ground floor, Gawain Davis bends over a display case showing mug shots of some of Wilde's fellow prisoners. Davis spent three months in Reading Jail in the 1980s for cannabis possession.

GAWAIN DAVIS: They look much like the same sort of people I was in here with (laughter) a hundred years later.

BARKER: Like Wilde, Davis spent 23 hours a day in his cell, the only sanitation a bucket he had to empty - or slop out - himself.

DAVIS: You were unlocked, let down for breakfast, locked back up again to eat it, unlocked again to slop out, then locked up again.

BARKER: Doesn't seem to have changed much since Oscar Wilde's day.

DAVIS: Oh, I doubt that. I think he found it a bit tougher (laughter). They weren't even allowed to talk in here then - in those days - were they?

BARKER: In 1895, when Wilde arrived, Reading Jail was one great Victorian machine of Christian penance, forcing prisoners to meditate on their crimes in silence while performing physical labor amid the reek of their own waste. The privations broke Wilde. Yet, they also inspired his last work, "The Ballad Of Reading Jail." That was written after his release. In those two years behind bars, letters were all he was permitted to write.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AI WEI WEI: (Speaking foreign language).

BARKER: And so several cells are filled with the sounds of "Letters of Separation," named after this form of imprisonment. In this cell, artist Ai Wei Wei is heard reading aloud a letter to his son about his imprisonment in China.

WEI WEI: (Speaking in foreign language).

BARKER: All the letters honor the one that inspired them - Wilde's "De Profundis" - from the depths - the 50,000-word letter he wrote here to Bosie, his lover and betrayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL BARTLETT: (Reading) Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me.

BARKER: That's actor Neil Bartlett reading "De Profundis" in the prison chapel. Every Sunday until the exhibition closes, a different performer will read the entire six-hour text aloud. Among them, actors Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw and punk poet and rocker Patti Smith. The organization behind all of this is called Artangel. It specializes in bringing cutting-edge art into unused and unusual spaces. It's co-director James Linwood says they had no trouble enlisting this A-list cast of readers.

JAMES LINGWOOD: When else would you get the chance to kind of come to terms and to pay homage to Oscar Wilde within the very place where he wrote this compelling, extended love letter?

BARKER: Lingwood says he's been struck by how much time visitors are spending at the exhibition. Jenny Welsh, a retired chaplain who's worked at other prisons, traveled to 40 miles from her home in London.

JENNY WELSH: Going into cells was very similar to the cells that prisoners I knew lived in. And seeing things that were just speaking quite powerfully of the isolation experience of being in prison - that was very powerful for me. Her husband, Philip, a retired clergyman, says the highlight for him was the renewed sense of connection with Wilde himself.

PHILLIP WELSH: It was standing in his cell and looking out of the same window and seeing the same patch of sky that he wrote about - the tent of blue the prisoners call the sky - in "The Ballad Of Reading Jail" - all at a inhuman height, so that you could only see the sky. I hadn't really realized that before.

BARKER: Oscar Wilde's cell, number C33, is the only one without an original artwork. In one corner, visitors have left some flowers, but in a sense, this entire exhibition is a floral offering to an artist seen as a martyr for loving and living in the wrong time, the wrong place. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Reading Jail. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.