Banksy has offered to raise £10 million to buy the prison that once held Oscar Wilde and was decorated with artwork by the street performer earlier this year.
Developers planned to turn HMP Reading into flats, but plans fell through due to heritage issues on the site, which has been out of use since 2013.
As a result, the prison went back on the market for £10 million and Banksy has offered to raise the money by selling the stencil he used to paint a mural on the wall of the Grade II listed building in March this year.
The stencil has an estimated value of between £10 million and £15 million and will be sold privately and not at auction.
It is clear that the offer is conditional on the site being used as an arts complex, in line with a £2.6m offer made by Reading Borough Council last year that was rejected by the Department of Justice .
Bristol-based artist Banksy has offered to raise £10 million to buy the Reading Prison, which once held Oscar Wilde and was decorated with artwork by the street artist earlier this year (pictured)
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Banksy said: ‘I had very little interest in Reading until I was on a replacement train service that passed the prison.
‘It’s rare to find a continuous 500m paintable surface in the middle of a city; I literally scrambled over the passenger next to me to get a better look.
‘I promised myself I would paint the wall before I even knew what it was. However, I love it now.
Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of fusing two contrasting ideas together to create magic. Converting the place that destroyed him into a sanctuary for art feels so perfect that we have to do it.’
Banksy has sold just one stencil before, making it his rarest art form, while the record for a Banksy work stands at £18.5 million.
The record was set for Love is in the Bin at Sotheby’s in October – which are the remains of a piece that was partially shredded during an auction in 2018.
Banksy says he will fund the purchase by selling the stencil he used to paint ‘Create Escape’ on the prison wall earlier this year (pictured), estimated to be worth up to £15million
Reading Borough Council had put in an offer last year to buy the prison to turn it into an arts center but the offer was rejected by the Justice Department and it went back on the market
Built in 1844 and formerly known as Reading Gaol, the council has long lobbied for the site to be turned into an arts center celebrating its heritage.
Reading Prison is known as the location where Oscar Wilde did two years of hard labor from 1895 to 1897 for ‘gross indecency’ and is the subject of his poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.
The Ballad Of Reading Gaol
In 1985, Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor at Reading Prison.
While there, a prisoner was executed for killing his wife.
On Wilde’s release, he wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which recounts this prisoner’s execution and tells a symbolic story highlighting the brutality of prisoners’ punishment.
The most well-known rules include:
‘Yet every man kills what he loves’
‘Let this be heard by each one,
‘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!”
Earlier this year, Banksy created his work “Create Escape” on the prison wall, which is believed to be a nod to the fact that Wilde was once housed here.
The artwork, on the red brick wall of the former Reading Prison, showed an inmate escaping the lockdown using a knotted roll of paper from a typewriter.
It appeared on March 1, and was officially confirmed as Banksy on March 4, when the elusive artist posted a video to his Instagram account.
The video is set to archive commentary from an episode of The Joy Of Painting starring Bob Ross.
It shows Banksy picking up and carrying a ladder, then picking out aerosol cans, in the dark.
Banksy places a template for the piece – which he now plans to sell – over the wall of Reading Prison and sprays it with paint.
Although the site was closed to inmates in 2013, its future has been the center of heated debate ever since.
The campaign to turn the site into an arts center has won the support of Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Natalie Dormer and Kate Winslet.
Other notable former inmates include heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua who was held there as a teenager in 2009 and Victorian serial killer Amelia Dyer who allegedly killed up to 400 babies.
The prison was built on the site of the medieval Reading Abbey, a monastery founded by Henry I – son of William the Conqueror.
Henry is believed to have been buried under the altar, which is now believed to be under the prison parking lot or walls.
Matt Rodda, Labor MP for Reading East, said the concept of using the prison to house art has been proven by past exhibitions and he planned to put an urgent question in parliament this week for ministers ‘on the ground’ to do with the offer.
He added: “There are these amazing layers of history – there is the literary history and the history of the LGBT community, and the link to Oscar Wilde. But there is also some local and national Victorian social history and there is the link with the royal family in one building and it is so well connected with the rest of the country.
“For so many reasons, it’s absolutely right that this building be preserved and used in a constructive way, rather than just being gutted and turned into flats or something else.”
Jason Brock, Reading Borough Council leader, said: ‘We are delighted with the attention Banksy’s interest in Reading Gaol has shown both the Department of Justice’s sale of the vacant prison and the council’s ambition to turn it into a hub. of art, heritage and culture of local and national significance.
“The council has so far only had informal approaches from representatives of Banksy, but no detailed discussions.
“Our offer remains firmly on the table and has broad support – both from the community here in Reading and from the wider arts, heritage and cultural community – all of whom recognize the immense historical and cultural value of the prison.”
The MoJ said, “The bid deadline has passed and we are currently considering the bids we have received.”