Banksy to sell Oscar Wilde stencil for £10m to help save gay icon’s jail from developers

Renowned street artist Banksy has pledged to donate £10 million to help fund a bid to purchase Reading Gaol, the jail that once held Oscar Wilde, and turn it into an art centre.

The Grade II-listed building, which was once described as a “Mecca” and an “LGBT heritage site” by Karen Rowland of Reading Borough Council, was put up for sale by the Ministry of Justice in 2019.

Since then campaigners have been working to prevent it being bought by developers and turned into apartments, instead arguing it should be cultivated into a tourist attraction and a venue for the arts community in Reading.

The building famously housed the trailblazing Irish author and poet between the years 1885 and 1887. Wilde was convicted for “gross indecency” for consensual homosexual acts under the UK’s historic anti-gay laws after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed.

The acclaimed writer’s trial was considered to be one of the first celebrity trials the world had ever seen. Following his incarceration there, Wilde wrote one of his most famous poems entitled The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) about his experiences inside.

“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,” Banksy said in a statement.

The artist has said he will sell the stencil of a mural he painted on the side of the building earlier this year in order to raise the necessary funds to support the bid, by Reading Borough Council. The artwork depicts a prisoner, possibly Wilde, escaping down the wall of the jail on a rope made of knotted sheets with a typewriter.

“We very much welcome the attention that Banksy’s interest in Reading Gaol has placed on both the MoJ’s [Ministry of Justice] sale of the vacant prison and on the council’s ambition to transform it into an hub of arts, heritage, and culture,” Jason Brock, leader of the council, told Artnet News.

The offer of financial support from Banksy comes after the council’s 2020 bid to buy the site and turn it into an art centre and LGBT+ museum was rejected.

Stephen Fry was among the high-profile figures who supported the bid at the time.