Oscar Wilde’s Prison Cell Opens to the Public for the First Time

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Reading Prison in the UK hosted a rather remarkable inmate 120 years ago. Oscar Wilde was detained in the facility for two years after being found guilty of sodomy in 1895. Now, after remaining closed to the the public for over a century, Wilde’s old cell is serving as the centerpiece of a tribute to the author, The New York Times reports.

The creative force behind Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is Artangel, the art-producer pair known for orchestrating projects in unusual locations. Patti Smith, Ai Weiwei, and Ralph Fiennes are a few of the artists contributing their talents to this latest exhibition.

From now until October 30, up to 100 visitors an hour will be admitted to roam the halls of the now-defunct compound where they can admire art adorning the walls or listen to headsets with authors reading their works. A portrait from South African-born painter Marlene Dumas depicts Wilde beside an image of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. In one cell, artist Steve McQueen covered the bed in gold-plated mosquito netting.

At the heart of the show is the cell where Wilde spent 23 hours each day. Unlike the surrounding spaces, the cramped room has been kept sparse so as not to distract visitors from quiet reflection. The cell next door has been stocked with vintage copies of some of the books he read during his time imprisoned, including works by Saint Augustine, Wordsworth, and Keats.

Wilde's time in prison defined the final years of his life. He sought refuge in Paris after his release and penned one of his most famous poems, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," inspired by his experience as an inmate. After three years of freedom, he died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis.

This marks the first time in the prison’s history that Wilde’s cell is open for the public to visit. Though it no longer functions as a prison, the Reading building is being kept on standby in case more space for inmates is needed, so this could be the last time in a while the public gets to peek inside.

[h/t The New York Times]

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