Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s reputation as an architect is linked primarily to his designs for churches and cathedrals and for Gothic-revival masterpieces such as the Midland Station Hotel at St Pancras Station and the main buildings for the University of Glasgow. Early in his career, in his early 30’s, he explored a castellated style for an unusual commission – the new County Gaol at Reading in Berkshire. Aimed to provide a model prison, to both lock up and reform criminals, its cruciform plan with open galleries of individual cells was the most modern of the time, as previously prisoners had been shackled in large dormitories (thought to be “schools of crime”) or shipped off to the colonies.
In this new model, prisoners had their own cells where they spend most of their time, derived from design principles set out by Jeremy Betham in the late 18th century, with a chapel for religious instruction and visits by the Chaplains as a key part of the model. The regime at Reading devised by the Chaplain John Field was pretty harsh, with prisoners spending 23 hours a day in their cell, only allowed out for exercise in the yard or to attend the chapel, not allowed to speak to each other or even look at each other, and wearing a hood when out of their cell to ensure compliance.
Reading prison was opened in 1844 and, would be little known were it not for one famous occupant, Oscar Wilde, and the ballad he wrote following his time spent there from 1895 to 1897, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” when this tough regime was still in place. Far from reforming Wilde, prison destroyed him and three years after his release he was dead, though his did write one of his greatest works “De Profundis”, taking the form of daily letters with immensely tiny writing so that he could fill his daily allowance of 4 pages, and not published in full until 1960.
The model prison became more and more packed and, when it closed in 2013, there were two and occasionally three prisoners sharing a cell which had originally been designed for one. Today it is empty, awaiting sale and a new use, but the original cruciform Gaol, now a listed historic building, has to be retained, perhaps as part of a hotel as in Oxford? In the meantime, it is one of the more unusual art venues, being home to the exhibition “Inside – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” curated by Artangel.
Work by artists such as Steve McQueen, Roni Horn, Marlene Dumas and Wolfgang Tillmans are spread across the prison, in the chapel, on the galleries and in cells, along with material relating to the history of Reading Prison and to Oscar Wilde and his time spent in Cell C.3.3. In addition, there are readings of letters and writing by artists such as Ai WeiWei and writers relating to incarceration and freedom across the world, including China, Belfast and South Africa. The artworks are chosen for the location and relate to prisons, incarceration, Oscar Wilde, homosexuality, freedom and water (The River Thames is nearby).
On the ground floor, one of the wings is blocked with tables by Doris Salcedo with earth and plants breaking through. Each about the size of a coffin, the tables represent the graves of Columbian men and boys who had disappeared and never been found, with the grass implying hope and life, while upstairs Marlene Dumas has created a number of portraits including Oscar Wilde and Bosie and, in the prison chapel, Jean-Michel Pancin has created a memorial from the original wooden door to Oscar Wilde’s cell set upright on a shadowy plinth which is the size of the cell. Following a visit to the Prison, Wolfgang Tillmans created two self- portraits, distorted in cell mirrors and created a video of the outside world as seen through one of the cell windows. Felix-Gonzalez-Torres replaces cell doors with strings of beads to represent running water, a theme which Robert Gober also adopts with a view through the concrete floor to a naturalistic scene with the hand of someone – trying to escape or trying to come in? Peter Dreher also takes water as a theme, this time several paintings of the same glass of water at different times of day, in his studio in Germany, a glass that never seems to change as time appears to stand still in prison.
A fascinating exhibition in an unusual and historic setting that most of us would not otherwise see.