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Banksy will sell jailbreak stencil for £10m to turn Reading prison into art centre

The now-defunct jail once held playwright Oscar Wilde on charges of gross indecency between 1895 and 1897

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Banksy's stencil appeared on the side of Reading prison in March

Banksy's stencil appeared on the side of Reading prison in March

The street artist Banksy is selling a stencil he painted on the side of Reading prison in a bid to save the former jail from being turned into a block of flats. The work, painted in March, shows a prisoner escaping on a rope of bedsheets tied to a typewriter. Proceeds from its sale, expected to fetch more than £10m, will support Reading Borough Council’s bid to buy the site and turn it into an arts centre.

A petition organised by the Save the Reading Gaol campaign confirms that “Banksy has indeed pledged the artwork to the people of Reading on the understanding that all the proceeds from its sale are used to secure the purchase of the gaol and convert it into an arts centre.” The stencil is currently on show at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in the exhibition Grayson’s Art Club. Banksy’s authentication body, Pest Control, declined to say if any private offers have yet been received for the work.

The historic prison, where Oscar Wilde was once held, has been under threat of redevelopment after the UK Ministry of Justice put it up for sale in late 2019. Two bids have since been fallen through and the site was put back on the market in June. The council submitted a £2.6m bid early 2020, which was rejected; the Ministry of Justice says it is currently considering new bids.

Banksy told Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times: “I promised myself I’d paint the wall even before I knew what it was. I’m passionate about it now, though. Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic. Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect, we have to do it.” Matt Rodda, the Labour MP for Reading East, tweeted that “it’s the best Christmas present Reading could wish for".

The now-defunct jail, which was permanently closed in 2013, is a Grade II-listed building and has art historical significance as the place that the playwright Oscar Wilde was detained for gross indecency between 1895 and 1897.

Wilde's association with the building has led it to be described by Reading council as a "LGBT heritage site". In 2016, the public art organisation Artangel organised Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, an exhibition featuring work by artists including Ai Weiwei, Marlene Dumas and Wolfgang Tillmans. Musician Patti Smith and the actor Ben Whishaw paid homage to Wilde by reading De Profundis, a harrowing letter written to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, in the prison chapel.

Banksy’s work Love is in the Bin set a new auction world record for the artist in October when it sold for £18.6m (with fees) at Sotheby’s London to a private Asian client.

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