A rare opportunity has arisen to look inside one of Her Majesty's more historic prisons. To be fair, the opportunity arose a couple of months ago, and there are only two weeks left, but it's not too late to go.
Berkshire's premier detainment facility, Reading Gaol, was modelled on the New Model Prison at Pentonville and opened in 1844. It took a new approach to confinement, replacing dormitories with individual cells, here laid out on three levels along three long wings. The cells continued in use until 2013, refitted and upgraded, and were last used as a young person's detention centre. And with the building standing empty, exhibitioneers Artangel have taken temporary possession and filled it with a diversity of artistic commissions. Art plus History = Wonder.
Reading's most famous prisoner was Oscar Wilde, incarcerated here in 1895 after unwisely prosecuting his lover's father for libel. Two years hard labour broke his spirit, but also inspired two of his most famous works - the unaddressed love letter De Profundis, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an anonymous poem written later subsequently in Paris exile. So Oscar was the obvious focus for Artangel's contributory artists, and the opportunity to stand in his cell a compelling draw.
It's an peculiar experience to walk deliberately into a prison building, across the courtyard and through the internal unlocked gate into the heart of the institution. The inside of this Victorian jail looks utterly archetypal, as seen in dozens of crime dramas over the years, with thin narrow staircases rising through protective netting to galleries on the upper levels, and a high vaulted roof illuminated in striplight gloom. Look once to see middle class art lovers on a creative safari, but think harder and it's easy to picture generations of convicts slopping out, or queues patiently filing out for daily exercise, perhaps even a minor riot.
It's worth £9 simply for the opportunity to walk round freely inside a prison and explore. For many a convicted felon and for many a year these walls were all they knew, and for the best part of that a single cell. Dozens are open for you to step inside, a single high window at the far end, and a modern metal washbasin/toilet insert plumbed partway down. Some have latticed beds, perhaps a chunky table and blocky chair, each chosen for their unchuckability rather than for aesthetics. Others are completely empty, an echoing space, with room for pacing up and down and not much more.
Oscar's cell was C.3.3. on the second floor, since renumbered C.2.2. after some sacrilegious internal rationalisation. For this exhibition it's been left art-free, but with a single pink rose on the table and an unlit candle alongside. There are two power points and a shelf, luxuries Wilde wouldn't have known in his lifetime, plus a handful of orange lino tiles to break the pattern of the floor. It's easy to imagine how an even emptier lockup would have driven a social genius to empty desperation. Wilde was fortunate that the governor eventually allowed him more than the regulation one book a week from the prison library, and copies of his lending choices are displayed in neighbouring cells.
The art elsewhere is quite varied, but a good excuse to explore every corner of the building. Some of the artists have provided paintings, in Wolfgang Tillmans' case self portraits of himself reflected in two of the cells' distorted mirrors. Other artists have gone for video presentations, with forbidden sexuality a common theme, and one particular cell has a warning outside of explicit adult content, which I can confirm is an erectile understatement.
Roni Horn's close-up photos of the Thames are disturbingly bleak, with suicidal undertones, and sharply provoking. Meanwhile several cells contain Letters of Separation, missives to loved ones by contemporary writers, which you can either read or listen to via headphones. The most moving of these, I thought, was Ai Weiwei's description of incarceration by the Chinese state, which he came to terms with by realising that his young guards were even more trapped by circumstance than he was.
Once the art becomes 3D it gets more hit and miss. A couple of lightbulbs on a wall, a gold-plated mosquito net on a bed, some upturned tables stacked with soil inbetween; these left me cold. More captivating were Robert Gober's hollow sculptures with flowing water features somehow placed inside, and top of the shop was the actual wooden door from Oscar's original cell placed on a plinth in the prison chapel. On Sundays famous actors including Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake have sat here to read the entirety of De Profundis to an appreciative audience, if they can stick the full four hours.
Oscar's two Reading-based compositions are featured in the governor's office, which hangs at the heart of the prison providing excellent sightlines along each gallery. From here you get a good idea of the building's compact oppression, and can pause to wonder how you might cope with being locked into sensual deprivation should the state ever decree. But only for another couple of weeks. Reading Jail is top of the government's list for selling off, their intention to wipe away Victorian practices and to replace it with inner city housing. The main building is Grade II listed so will survive, but shamelessly neutered, and never as evocatively as this.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde, 1898