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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about her monotype inspired by Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.


An exhibition at Reading’s Turbine House in 2019 entitled In Reading Gaol by Reading Town, showcased artwork from Reading artists inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. Jenny Halstead’s monotype is reproduced here, together with some creative context from the artist.

The Ballad was written after Oscar Wilde was released from a two-year sentence of hard labour, and was prompted principally by a hanging that had taken place in the Gaol during that time, which greatly affected both the poet and the other inmates.

My first thoughts turned to what the word ‘ballad’ typically suggested: a simple song, often with a memorable refrain conveying a moral, often expressed in combination with a mournful melody.

Monotype seemed the appropriate medium, given its immediacy as the product of a single pull without a printing press. My intention was to catch a precise moment on the stroke of eight, the victim alive one moment, dead the next, but the rope still swinging, with the horror of and end-of-life event set over against the haunting line: ‘nimble feet to dance upon the air’. The shapes on either side represent an inverted tent, ‘the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky’. The whole conception is intended to look unrefined and brutal.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022

Jenny Halsteads artwork inspired by The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Jenny Halstead is a long-standing member of the Reading Guild of Artists and founder of the Whiteknights Studio Trail.

Also by Jenny Halstead: An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden (2013), Silchester: Life on the Dig (2015, with Michael Fulford), The Art & History of Whiteknights (2020, Editor).

The Two Rivers Press edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is illustrated with imagery by Peter Hay.

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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about the artwork she created to illustrate Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.


Published in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death on the Western Front, Pennies on My Eyes is a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry illustrated by Reading-based artists. Here, Jenny Halstead writes about the influences for the artwork she created to illustrate the poem ‘Disabled’ (on page 25 of the book).


Artwork by Jenny Halstead illustrating Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

The dominant images in my mind were of soldiers marching, whether walking or standing still bewildered, others unable to stand because badly wounded. These were the ‘lucky’ ones who had survived being blown to pieces after going up the line to the front.

In my career as a medical artist I studied the work of Henry Tonks, who trained as a surgeon before re-training in fine art. During WWI he worked with the pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, and made a large number of drawings and paintings of injured and facially disfigured soldiers, before and during the process of facial reconstruction, injuries caused mainly by raising their heads above the line of the trench. These pastels are largely housed in the Royal College of Surgeons.

I visited the Imperial War Museum, and particularly remember shaky black-and-white newsreel footage: soldiers coming over a rise, one by one passing guns over their shoulders, looking exhausted but nevertheless smiling, if only for the sake of the camera.

The crutches reminded me of a visit to the British Rail Works in Swindon in 1975. My late husband, a palaeontologist had identified a massive 9 metre short necked Plesiosaur found in the works floor while they were digging. So the following year we were invited to their Open Day. They proudly exhibited the shiny new 125 train alongside the amazing 130-150 million year fossil. But at the back of the foundry was an extensive display of WW1 prostheses made in the yard by railwaymen using metal and steel from the trains and leather and padding from the upholstered seating. An efficient use of re-cycled materials.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022


Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

Jenny Halstead is a long-standing member of the Reading Guild of Artists and founder of the Whiteknights Studio Trail.

Also by Jenny Halstead: An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden (2013), Silchester: Life on the Dig (2015, with Michael Fulford), The Art & History of Whiteknights (2020, Editor).

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The Art and History of Whiteknights: 2 – Jenny Halstead writes about the Whiteknights Studio Trail and Christchurch Green

It was the autumn of 2019 when the idea of a book to celebrate the Whiteknights Studio Trail’s 20th anniversary in 2020 was conceived. Two Rivers Press, who had been an exhibiting member of the WST since the very beginning, were keen to be on board and a joint publication with shared costs was born.  The book would feature artists’ work in a response to the area of Whiteknights, as well as chapters on its history. As TRP had many titles lined up for publication in 2020, this new ‘babe’ if it was to be out by June, had to be created as soon as possible.

I contacted artists who had been in the Trail from the beginning and others who worked in different mediums or lived in the area, asking if they would like to participate and produce a piece of work inspired by the Whiteknights campus or the area round about, with a deadline of just over 5 weeks!  I had an enthusiastic response from 28 artists. The two chapters on the history of the area, one on the campus of Whiteknights Park estate by Ian Burn and John Grainger, the other on the surrounding area by Evelyn Williams and Dennis Wood , were an excellent complement, and also a foreword by Radio 3’s Fiona Talkington on living in the area. Everyone, to my great joy, met the deadline!

Having been one of the WST founder members and now its Co-ordinator, I felt particularly saddened by the need in March to cancel the 20th WST event this year, due to Coronavirus.  I was heartened by the fact that the book would be published in June as planned and that WST would be back next year for a 21st birthday celebration on 12 &13 June 2021.

Lock-down – Christchurch Green

My home and studio are on Christchurch Road and in these weeks of lock-down I have seen a massive change in the usually busy, noisy road. Now a strange eeriness – no students, a few people distancing in a queue waiting to enter the chemist, many shops closed. The silence broken only by the sound of birdsong and (alas) ambulances.

I pay a personal homage to the No 21 bus travelling valiantly past my house every 20 minutes or so, even in the evening, carrying perhaps just a single passenger. A warrior. My painting, featured in the book, shows the shops opposite Christchurch Green in autumn when I painted it, but actually includes the No 21 bus!

Last week the Green was transformed from a wild meadow by RBC Streetcare Team. When I spoke with the gardener, he was delighted to know that we all cared for this tiny green and that we had in place a watering rota for the new plantings. He strimmed the long grass, trimmed the shrubs, returning the next day to lovingly mow and mulch the plants.

A new neighbourhood group – The Friends of Christchurch Green – is about to be launched, delayed only by this current situation.

The Green last year had live music from a local band for several hours during our Whiteknights Studio Trail offering a festival feel to the weekend as visitors walked around and  just last week, BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington broadcast one of her shows, a 3-hour long  music programme, live from  her home just a few metres away.

On one Thursday evening clap for the NHS a group of professional musicians who share a house across the Green brought a four piece band out and the air was filled with music and memories of the Beatles song ‘Come Together ‘.

~ Jenny Halstead


In a normal year, towards the end of May we would be looking forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.