Reading Gaol, Where Oscar Wilde Was Imprisoned, Unlocks Its Gates For Art In 1895, Wilde was convicted of homosexual activity and sentenced to two years in prison. Built in the mid-1800s, the facility was operational until 2013. Now, it's hosting an unusual art exhibit.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.