It’s the beginning of the year and time to start a new enquiry. About 6 years ago I went to an exhibition in Reading Jail as it had recently closed. This was where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for Indecency and sentenced to 2 years hard labour. While inturned he wrote a long love letter called De Profundus to his boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, known by his nickname of Bosie. The poem was a way of rationalising his love and suffering, ‘Where there is suffering there is holy ground.’ In jail Wild was always referred to as prisoner 4099.
The experience of seeing his cell was haunting for me. This prison in later years housed hunger strikers from Northern Ireland
However, what really struck me were the Victorian photos of prisoners taken as a record when they were first admitted. They were photographed in their own clothes and all struck the same position of displaying their hands in front of them. There were young and old, male and female. Why were the hands placed in this unnatural pose?
The photographs were taken for two reasons: the identification of the criminal classes and to support theories about criminal physiology.
Most of the photographs show prisoners with their hands on their laps. This is because of theories about the shape of the skull and hands of criminals. These pictures fed into the cod psychology of the day. 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.
These images are printed onto silk
These are pen and ink drawings. Will continue to explore this enquiry