Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde
For the very first time in its history, Reading Prison – formerly Gaol – has been opened to the public. The National Trust have teamed up with Artangel to allow visitors to tour the corridors and cells best known for incarcerating Oscar Wilde for two traumatic and life-changing years from 1895.
We visited on a warm summers day, with well-lit corridors and cell walls illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight. It was not the best time to experience anything of the misery that prisoners must have endured from the 1840’s right up until its surprisingly recent decommissioning in 2013, but it was not too difficult to imagine the hardships that were endured.
The core of the prison remains largely as it was built, in brick and cast iron, by George Gilbert Scott. As a renowned Victorian Gothic revival architect, he was chiefly associated with the design of churches and cathedrals, but was also architect of iconic buildings like the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.
The influence of his church architecture can be seen in occasional gothic motifs and ceiling shapes that define the four brick-built wings. These are arranged in a (religiously influenced?) cross-shape so that the 19th century Governor could easily keep a beady eye on all four wings simultaneously from his central office area. The prison chapel, most recently doubling as a sports hall, is suitably grand with high ceilings and leaded windows. It also features Oscar Wilde’s wooden cell door – carefully preserved, it here stands monumentally atop a concrete plinth crafted to the exact dimensions of his cell.
The space once had a sloping floor where the prisoners each had their own cubicle, banned from seeing or communicating with any other inmate. Total silence in fact originally reigned throughout, with prisoners locked 23 hours a day in single cells, banned from talking, or seeing others, and hooded when moved.
Those more dangerous or unruly were held in the handful of the ‘dark cells’ underground; isolated in the almost unimaginable privations of total darkness and silence. After taking showers in the adjacent area, other prisoners were often given a two-minute taste of isolation as a, presumably, very effective warning of what would become of them should they misbehave.
Wilde’s Cell A3.3 – actually now numbered A2.2 – can also be visited. Identical to every other it has enough space, just, for the single bed and desk that he was allowed. Managing to negotiate a supply of paper from a helpful warden – one sheet at a time – he wrote the reflective De Profundis (From the Depths) – a letter to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the object of the reckless relationship that led to his eventual imprisonment. By the time he was released, the brutal regime of Reading had broken his will and contributed heavily to his early death.
Readings from De Profundis by, amongst others Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw will also take place, whilst writers including Ai Weiwei have contributed letters that are on display in the cells.
Alongside the prison tours, arranged by the National Trust, is a very impressive exhibition of contemporary art. Organised by Artangel, who commission ‘art that challenges perceptions, surprises, inspires and wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a gallery’, they have invited a formidable array of talent to produce work that reacts to the prison environment and its history.
Amongst many highlights are Robert Gober’s meticulously crafted sculptures – a waterfall within a black suit and a stream within the excavated floor of the prison, clearly expressing unfulfilled fantasies of freedom and nature.
Nan Goldin brings her raw and intimate portraits into an appropriately claustrophobic space. She occupies four cells with pieces including The Boy – a cell filled with images of a single male muse, that climb over walls and lay scattered on an iron bedstead.
Marlene Dumas has produced eight new canvases that include Wilde and Bosie as well as chronicling other troubled relationships such as between Jean Genet and two of his lovers and Pier Paolo Pasolini and his mother.
In the centre of the corridors, you can help yourself to a free unlimited edition print by Felix Gonzales-Torres alongside cells where his curtains of dangling blue plastic beads (Untitled Water) cleverly subvert the entry to a couple of cells, and a blue mirror (Untitled Fear) reflects a troubled interior.
Other thoughtful and interesting contributions come from great names like Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Hamilton, Roni Horn, Steve McQueen and Doris Salcedo.
It is not often that architecture, culture, history, literature and contemporary art come together in a single event but here we have an exceptional collaboration between two giants of the arts and culture – the National Trust and Artangel, in a unique environment. They have created a wholly satisfying and integrated whole that should be most definitely experienced while it lasts.
Inside – HM Prison Reading is open for tours Friday 9 September – Saturday 29 October 2016
Artists and Writers by Artangel at Reading Prison – runs from 4 September to 30 October 2016
For more information visit www.artangel.org.uk