In Reading Gaol by Reading Town

An exhibition featuring work from 20 local artists inspired by Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was held in the Turbine House at Blake’s Lock in Reading in 2019.

Below are a selection of works from the exhibition.

In Reading Gaol
In Reading Gaol
Carole Pembrooke – “Hangman Walking”

Carole says “The Ballad of Reading Gaol conjured up vivid images. In particular, the horror of waiting to be hung, of other prisoners waiting for the hanging to take place, & that the ‘watchers watched him sleep’ as they peer through the gaol door hatch in case he might kill himself first. In the image the ‘Hangman with his garden gloves’ walks, holding the leather straps which will bind the prisoner prior to hanging him. Bottom right are three wilting seedlings, indicating that those hung were buried in quicklime where ‘nothing can be grown nearby for three years’.”

Linda says “The cruelty of the Victorian prison system is brought vividly to life when you read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. The phrase “separate Hell” occurs twice in the Ballad. I assume the rhyme between “hell” and the unspoken “cell” is deliberate and that “separate” is a reference to the separate system that kept prisoners isolated and unable to communicate.

The decorative pattern in the lower right hand corner is derived from frottage of a staircase from the Gaol. Typical Victorian decorative elements in the prison such as this seem incongruous with the harshness of the prison regime for which it was built.

Linda Saul – “Oscar’s separate hell”

The figure is wearing a Scotch cap, designed to stop prisoners being able to make eye contact with each other.”

Martina Hildebrandt – “At last I saw…”

Martina says “I had a clear image in my head of Oscar Wilde’s cell as we know it today, but it was only after reading the Ballad that the image of a slightly faded transparent figure of a past prisoner emerged, sitting in despair. Originally thinking I’d do a linocut print, whilst doing some preparatory sketches,for additional inspiration, I looked at the prisoner works of a favourite artist A. Paul Weber, best known for his dark social commentary lithographs. This is the mixed media piece that developed. The viewer is kept at a distance and needs to peer through a slightly grubby grill, intrigued by what’s inside.”

Jenny says “My initial thoughts in response to The Ballad of Reading Gaol were to consider the word ‘ballad’ –a simple song, often with a refrain, with an overall moral dimension.

The shapes on either side indicate an inverted tent: ‘….the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky’.

I wanted to consider the moment, on the stroke of eight, on the critical cusp – alive, then … no longer alive – the rope still swinging, and the haunting line ‘nimble feet to dance upon the air’ contrasts with the horror of execution.”

Jenny Halstead – “To Dance Upon the Air”

Martin Andrews – “The door to Oscar’s cell”

Martin says “I was moved by the sight of the door to Oscar’s cell which was used in a performance when the gaol was open to the public – it brought the reality starkly to life. Looking at both sides, I felt the horror of being observed but unable to look out of the spy hole, of not knowing who was looking in – a warder, the clergyman, the escort to the gallows. How often did Oscar see an eye observing him?”

Liz says “A nightmarish vision of a living hell where cockerels crowed but ‘never came the day’ and where ‘with yawning mouth the yellow hole gaped for a living thing’. And ‘the warders … peeped and saw with eyes of awe, grey figures on the floor, and wondered why men knelt to pray who never prayed before’, these same ‘sad men who looked … upon that little tent of blue [that] prisoners call the sky’.
I used the Two Rivers Press edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol as my reference and, as a little homage to the late Peter Hay, decided to incorporate some rubber stamp prints in this piece (I didn’t know Peter but I was lucky enough to once attend one of his printing courses).”

Liz Real – “The grey cock crew, the red cock crew”
Heather McAteer – “Wild(e) Words”

“He had written a dedication which was to run:

When I came out of prison some met me with garmentsand with spices and others with wise counsel

You met me with love

This was probably intended to allow Wilde to say to Douglas as well as to Ross, Adey and perhaps others that the dedication was to each of them. Ross was convicted that it would do no good, either to the poem or to them…eventually Wilde agreed. There was no dedication.”

from ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellman (1987)

Sally Castle – “But Never Came the Light of Day ”

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves at in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree, With its alder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die Before it bears its fruit!
The gray cock crew, the red cock crew, But never came the day:

Trish says “This work depicts Wilde’s fall from a rich and flamboyant lifestyle into ignominy and the confines of stone prison walls. His use of colours in the poem was my starting point for ‘The Little Tent of Blue’. Reading the Ballad revealed certain colours – red, grey, white, black, purple, blue, silver, gold, green & yellow – which are translated into this print in rough proportion to the number of references therein.
This colour palette overlays a collagraph print, where architectural shapes seen in the Gaol cut across the more opulent areas, indicating portentous visions of his future. The ‘little tent of blue’ – that small patch of sky viewed by the prisoners above their exercise yard – is for me the most poignant reference to their lack of freedom.”

Trish Roberts – “The Little Tent of Blue”
Paul Woolley – The Window

I wanted to use this opportunity to work in a different way from my usual practice. Taking a poem as the starting point is a chance to produce an art work directly from Oscar Wilde’s text and not from using my own ideas as the inspiration – it widened my scope considerably.

I found this approach to be refreshing as it needed a different sort of discipline, on my part, in order to keep to the words and ideas of the poem. The images and feelings that it conjured up were quite doom laden and this was reflected in the colours that I chose to use in the work. It is not a happy topic as it deals with the heart and soul of the writer, in a dire situation!

I would like to thank the Berkshire Records Office, Reading for allowing the images of the prison to be used in my artwork.