His latest act of benevolence has been to sell the stencil used to paint one of his pieces on a wall of Reading Prison. The prison, which has been derelict since 2013, is being sold by the Ministry of Defence, but local campaigners want it to be turned into an arts centre rather than be auctioned off to housing developers. The sale would raise millions of pounds and potentially save the site for future generations.
Opened in 1844, the prison is most famous as the site of Oscar Wilde’s incarceration for his relationship with Alfred Lord Douglas. His time at the prison, which he stayed in between 1895 and 1897, inspired his famous poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde also wrote De Profundis, a love letter to Douglas, during his imprisonment. And so the spot has also become an important site of literary and LGBTQ+ history. The prison, however, was closed in 2014 under The Closure of Prisons Order, and in May 2021 it was announced that Reading Borough Council's bid for the gaol had been turned down by the Ministry of Justice.
In response, Banksy called Wilde “the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic,” and added that “converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.” The project to save the prison has also been backed by some big celebrity names, such as actors Sir Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Natalie Dormer and Dame Judi Dench. Winslet, who grew up in the town, described the artist’s pledge as ‘incredible’ and argued that “if Reading had a legacy space like that, to hand on to generation after generation, it could really be as valuable as some of those central London theatres."
The Banksy mural appeared on the night of 28th February 2021. It depicts a prisoner escaping on a rope made of bedsheets, with a typewriter attached to it. Many have speculated that it depicts Oscar Wilde, but the prisoner’s face is obscure and sunken, almost skull-like. His featureless face teases the viewer, encouraging them to seek Wilde in the artwork and yet refusing to be pinned down to one prisoner. Banksy also uploaded a video of the piece entitled "Create Escape" on 5 March, mixed over a narration by Bob Ross.
The stencil is expected to sell for £10 million. Together with Reading borough council’s contribution, this would bring the offer for the former jail to an estimated £12.6m. Although an enormous sum, it’s not Banksy’s most expensive artwork to date, after his work Game Changer sold for £16.8 million in March 2021, breaking the record for the most expensive Banksy sold at auction.
The artwork remains on the walls of the prison, although it had to be covered by protective screens last summer after being defaced with red paint. The typewriter in the stencil was covered up, and the words “Team Robbo” were painted underneath, referring to the graffiti artist Robbo, who died in 2014, with whom Banksy was in a long running feud. However, work was carried out to restore the piece. Meanwhile, the stencil itself went on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery last December as part of an exhibition by the artist Grayson Perry for his Channel 4 series Grayson’s Art Club.
Although Banksy pledged to sell the stencil in December 2021, council leader Jason Brock noted that “the council has had only informal approaches from representatives of Banksy to date, but no detailed discussions.” However, he added that “our bid remains firmly on the table and has widespread support – both from within the community here in Reading and from the wider arts, heritage and cultural community – all of whom recognise the prison’s huge historical and cultural value.” In true Banksy style, it looks like the artist is keeping us in the dark on the fate of his pledge, at least for the meantime.
This is by no means the first time that Banksy has sold his art for a charitable cause. Amongst his many projects, Banksy has supported NHS workers on the front line of the COVID crisis and sold art in support of charities such as the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation and the Campaign Against Arms Trade and Reprieve. In May 2020, Banksy shipped his piece Game Changer to Southampton General Hospital with a personalised note. The piece sold for £16.8 million at Christie’s 20th Century Art Evening Sale in London on 23 March 2021, and the proceeds were donated to supporting the wellbeing of NHS University Southampton Hospital staff and patients. Banksy is also particularly interested in supporting refugee charities.
For a project in 2019, he designed door mats that were then hand-stitched from life-vests found on the local beaches by women in Greek refugee camps, and ran a competition in which fans who donated to Help Refugees charity had the chance to win his 2015 piece How Heavy It Weighs, which depicts a remote controlled boat overcrowded with refugees. Participants had to guess how much the piece weighed, and the venture raised an estimated £90,000 for the charity.