The street art appears overnight on the side of Reading Prison which is under threat of development.
An artwork bearing the hallmarks of street artist Banksy has appeared on the side of Reading Prison overnight.
The picture shows a prisoner – possibly resembling famous inmate Oscar Wilde – escaping on a rope made of bedsheets tied to a typewriter.
Campaigners have been fighting to see the former jail turned into an arts hub rather than sold off for housing.
The “guerrilla artist” has not yet claimed the work but an expert said it did “appear to be a new Banksy”.
The jail famously housed Wilde between 1895 and 1897 and was immortalised by his poem Ballad of Reading Gaol during his stay, which reflected on the brutality of the Victorian penal system.
He was convicted after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed.
The prison has been derelict since 2013 and was put up for sale by the government in 2019.
However, a deal to sell the Grade II-listed building to developers fell through last year and Reading council said it hoped to revive its bid to turn it into an arts complex.
Hollywood actors Sir Kenneth Branagh, Natalie Dormer and Dame Judi Dench are among the stars who have lent their support to the campaign.
Banksy expert and vice-chancellor of Arts University Bournemouth, Prof Paul Gough, described the artwork as “pretty compelling” and said the quality of the painting suggested it was done by someone “who knows how to paint and has got a lot of practice at painting up a scaffold in the dead of night”.
He added: “At the moment it would take a good copier to get that right.”
Discussing the artwork’s message, he said: “It’s possibly a comment on the prison’s potential use as an arts centre, but the fact that it’s got a type-writer and that it’s all about paper and writing might be some sort of commentary on what’s happening with news media and Facebook.”
Vince John, from the 1loveart gallery in Bristol, which sells urban and street art, said: “I believe this is an example of Banksy’s street work at its best, being both humorous and politically poignant. A great piece of work and a brilliant social commentary.”
The art curator said he thought it referenced Oscar Wilde and could be a “nod of encouragement for the use of the building as a cultural and arts centre… now it has its crowd-puller and star exhibit to get things moving in the right direction”.
Andre Rhoden-Paul, BBC South
Residents flocked in their droves to take in the new possible Banksy street art that appeared overnight on the wall of HMP Reading.
Many were asking each other if the graffiti had been confirmed as genuine or not.
But that did not stop them taking selfies with Reading’s latest attraction, which was stencilled on the towering brick wall under a seemingly out-of-use CCTV camera.
People passing by in cars also craned their necks out of windows to see what the fuss was about.
Toby Davies, artistic director of Reading-based Rabble Theatre, said if it is genuine “it’s amazing that Banksy has recognised the cultural significance of Reading’s extraordinary gaol”.
He added: “In the right hands, this gaol will evolve Reading into an internationally recognised historical and cultural destination, built on the values of acceptance and diversity. Dare I say it, it looks like Banksy agrees.”
Prof Gough added: “It draws attention to the town, it brings people out on the street, they then have a conversation and so public art is suddenly given a foreground at a time when people do want that level of diversion – and I think that’s terrific.”
Reading resident Marcus Edgar said he thought the artwork was a great way of raising awareness and “keeping that campaign alive and not selling it off to some developer”.
Eloise Wylie agreed: “If it is real then that’s really good. It’s quite significant and really nice to support that campaign.”
Reading East MP Matt Rodda said: “I’d like to thank Banksy, or whoever else painted this, for their support for the campaign to save Reading Gaol… This unique historic building should be saved for future generations.”
The Prison Service said it was aware of the artwork and would provide a further statement in due course.