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New Work Inspired by Reading Jail Prisoners

February 23, 2022

heather tobias portrait on silk of victorian prisoner from reading jail

Earlier this year artist Heather Tobias embarked on a new enquiry sparked by a visit to Reading Jail. This was where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency in 1895 and sentenced to 2 years hard labour. While incarcerated Wilde wrote a long love letter called De Profundus to his boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, or "Bosie". The poem helped Wilde express his love and his suffering, ‘Where there is suffering there is holy ground.’ While in jail Wilde was always referred to as prisoner 4099. The experience of seeing Wilde's cell was haunting for Heather. This prison later housed hunger strikers from Northern Ireland.

However, what really struck Heather were the Victorian photographs of prisoners taken as a record when they were first admitted. She said, "They were all photographed in their own clothes and all struck the same position displaying their hands in front of them. There were young and old, male and female. Why were the hands placed in this unnatural pose?"

Victorian Photographs of prisoners from Reading Jail

She discovered that the photographs were taken for two reasons: the identification of the criminal classes and to support theories about criminal physiology. Most of the prisoners have their hands on their chests. This is because of theories about the shape of the skull and hands of criminals at the time. Theories of anthropological criminology: the idea that a person is born criminal and that such tendencies can be identified by physical indicators, was fuelled by analysis of criminal mugshots by Alphonse Bertillon and Hans Gross.

Using these images as her starting point Heather has begun to work with them, interpreting them in different ways, either as transfers on silk;

Image of Victorian prisoner transferred onto silk by Heather Tobias

Or as drawings in mixed media on paper;

Reading Gaol Prisoners - ink drawings by Heather Tobias

Heather is enjoying the process and is not sure how the theme will develop.

We are curious to see what happens next .......

You can follow Heather Tobias' work on Instagram or on her website.






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