Banksy sketches out £10m plan to free Oscar Wilde’s prison from developers

    Banksy has pledged to raise millions of pounds to help buy the prison in which Oscar Wilde was incarcerated so it can be turned into an arts centre, rather than being sold to property developers to turn into flats.

    The anonymous graffiti artist has offered to match the £10 million purchase price for HMP Reading — formerly Reading Gaol — by selling the stencil of a work he painted on the side of the grade II listed building in March.

    Banksy is believed to have sold only one stencil before, making them the rarest part of his output. It has an estimated value of £10 million to £15 million and is set to be sold privately to a collector without an auction.

    The record sale for a Banksy is £18.5 million, set at Sotheby’s in October for Love is in the Bin, the remains of a work that was partially shredded during a 2018 auction.

    He said: “I had very little interest in Reading until I was on a rail replacement bus service that went past the jail. It’s rare to find an uninterrupted 500m-long paintable surface slap bang in the middle of a town; I literally clambered over the passenger next to me to get a closer look.

    “I promised myself I’d paint the wall even before I knew what it was. I’m passionate about it now, though. Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic. Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”

    Banksy’s offer, which is contingent on the Berkshire site being turned into an arts complex, supports plans by Reading borough council.

    The derelict prison, disused since 2013, is owned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and was first put up for sale in October 2019. The council bid £2.6 million in April last year and is lobbying to turn the jail into an arts centre to celebrate its heritage with a cinema, performance spaces and exhibition venues.

    A petition organised by the Save Reading Gaol campaign has thousands of signatures and the support of the actors Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry and Kate Winslet.

    The council bid was rejected and instead the MoJ agreed an undisclosed deal with Artisan Real Estate, but the sale collapsed in November last year because of significant heritage issues on the site. A second bid from the council was rejected in May and it was put back on the market in June.

    Enter Banksy. The Bristol-based artist’s mural of an inmate escaping with a typewriter is considered a reference to Wilde, the jail’s most famous convict, who was held there from 1895 to 1897 for gross indecency after his affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was exposed.

    Wilde wrote De Profundis, his letter of lament to his former lover, in his cell. After his release he remembered his time as a prisoner in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, one of the most quoted poems in English literature.

    The stencil went on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery last week as part of an exhibition curated by the artist Grayson Perry to celebrate his Channel 4 series Grayson’s Art Club.

    The jail is thought to stand on the site where Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror, was buried in 1136. His body is believed to lie beneath the car park. The jail also sits next to the ruins of Reading Abbey, the great Benedictine monastery founded by Henry, once among the largest in Europe.

    The prison was opened in 1844. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott, architect of the Albert Memorial and the Midland Grand Hotel, now restored as the St Pancras Renaissance. Former inmates include the boxer Anthony Joshua, remanded there as a teenager when the prison was a young offenders’ institution, and the Victorian serial killer Amelia Dyer, who was said to have murdered up to 400 babies.

    Matt Rodda, the Labour MP for Reading East, said last week that the council bid for the jail had been bolstered by a £2 million donation from a “leading figure in the arts community”.

    The MoJ said: “The deadline for bids has passed and we are currently considering the ones we received.”