The British street artist Banksy has confirmed that he created a new work that appeared on Monday on the outside wall of Reading Prison, in Berkshire, England. The work shows an inmate dressed in a stripey black and white outfit lowering himself down the wall using a long sheet of paper (mimicking the tied bedsheets method) weighted by a typewriter.
Banksy revealed that he had created the work with a video posted on his official website and Instagram account. The video shows the piece being spray painted onto the wall with a voiceover lifted from an episode of the television show The Joy of Painting, hosted by the American artist Bob Ross. The much-loved instructional painting programme, which originally aired in the late 1980s and early 90s, showed the artist create a new oil painting in each episode, explaining each step in his calm dulcet tones. In the new video, Banksy has appropriated the instructions to mirror his actions while installing the work.
The typewriter in the Banksy work is likely a reference to the Victorian prison’s most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde, who was jailed from 1895 to 1897 after being convicted of gross indecency (for a homosexual relationship, which was illegal at the time). Wilde’s time inside inspired the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written in exile after his release.
The Grade II listed building was closed in 2013 and has since been used as a film set for programmes such as Killing Eve as well as the venue for a major exhibition in 2016 organised by the art commissioning organisation Artangel. The show, titled Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, was inspired by the jail’s most famous inmate and included works by artists such as Steve McQueen, Marlene Dumas, Nan Goldin and Ai Weiwei. There were also readings of Wilde’s De Produndis letter, written to his lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas while he was incarcerated, by cultural figures such as the singer Patti Smith and the actor Ben Whishaw.
The prison building is owned by the Ministry of Justice and was put up for sale in 2019, when a campaign was started to save it from being sold to property developers.
A spokesperson for the Reading Borough Council told the BBC that “the council is pushing the Ministry of Justice, who own the site, to make suitable arrangements to protect the image.” The spokesperson adds: “We are thrilled that Banksy appears to have thrown his support behind the council’s desire to transform the vacant Reading Gaol into a beacon of arts, heritage and culture with this piece of artwork he has aptly called Create Escape.”