Arthur Koestler: From Thinker to Arts Project

Pic: They May Have My Body But… They Will Never Have My Mind

Stirling Council Criminal Justice Social Work Service

John Crockett Highly Commended Award for Painting 2018

Arthur Koestler

In the 1950s, the writer Arthur Koestler (1905 –1983) campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment, especially through a series of articles in The Observer newspaper and the book Reflections on Hanging (1956). Once it became clear that the campaign was successful (hanging was finally abolished in 1965), he turned his attention to ‘an imaginative and exciting way to stimulate as far as possible, and in as many cases as possible, the mind and spirit of the prisoner.’

Koestler initially taught me I needed a sense of purpose if I was going to survive. It gave me motivation; brought about betterment as a person; creativity; mindfulness; its share of ideas and opinions; togetherness; interpersonal relationships due to common interests and confidence to teach others how I’d developed, and I don’t just mean through art; it develops us on a personal level too, where rehabilitation is hard to find.” – Koestler Awards entrant.

What Prison Sounds Like


HM Prison Oakwood Platinum Award for Poem

People don’t realise how much of prison is about sound – when you are locked up 23 hours, you construct what is happening outside the door by sound alone – who is being moved, who is being spun, who is falling out with who. The rattle of trolleys, the shouting at the gate, the other people’s music. Prison is something you hear, rather than see. Most non-prisoners will have a visual image, but what prison looks like is only a small part of being inside.”-

The first Koestler Awards

Arthur Koestler decided to set up an annual scheme to award ‘creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined’. There was almost no precedent for work by prisoners being judged and rewarded by prominent experts from outside the prison system, but the idea was welcomed by Home Secretary RA Butler. A steering committee was set up, chaired by Koestler’s literary agent AD Peters, and including the editor of The Observer David Astor. Koestler was reluctant to have the scheme named after him, but the committee insisted.

When the first round of Koestler Awards took place in 1962, there were about 200 entries and the best visual winners were exhibited in the gallery at Foyle’s Bookshop. Koestler Exhibitions have continued since then and now include shows around the UK.

Being creative has helped me survive my prison sentence, I go to a different place when I’m thinking of ideas and then making them out of whatever I can find.” Koestler Awards entrant, 2020

Setting up the Koestler Awards

The scheme expanded rapidly. Koestler initially paid for the prize money himself, but more funding was soon needed from other sources, and in 1969 the awards were formalised into a charitable trust. When Koestler died, he left £10,000 to the charity.

Koestler Arts exists thanks to voluntary donations from businesses, trusts and foundations, individuals and gifts in wills. Find out more about supporting our work.

Air Punch, HM Prison Maidstone

Platinum Award for Sculpture 2018

Celebrating 50 years of the Koestler Awards 

2012 marked 50 years of encouraging prisoners, secure patients and detainees to participate in the arts. They held a fundraising dinner at the Waldorf Hotel in London – where some of those initial discussions about the new charity took place. Items including artwork by Antony Gormley, Mary Feddon and a special Koestler birthday cake decorated by Grayson Perry were auctioned to raise funds for the charity.

Koestler Arts, a new working name

On 1 May 2019 the Koestler Trust adopted a new working name, Koestler Arts, and a new strapline: ‘Unlock the talent inside’. They launched a new logo and branding designed by Playne Design. The charity’s registered name remains ‘the Koestler Trust’.

There is a huge range of fine art being produced in criminal justice and secure settings around the UK. Engaging with fine art is often one of the first steps into education for many people in secure settings.

Many entrants to the Koestler Awards make work for their friends or families. Portraits, in particular, are given as gifts or commissioned from photographs. Others make artwork for qualifications or college portfolios, or simply for the joy of experimenting with materials and ideas. Some work is made using materials in prison art departments, but people in secure settings can also purchase their own materials or experiment with every day or recycled materials (such as bread, soap and papier-mâché).

Come to Life
HM Prison and Young Offender Institution East Sutton Park
Watercolour and Gouache

Each year the Koestler Awards generate one of the most eclectic and unusual collections of fine art in the UK. Koestler Awards visual art categories include painting; watercolour and gouache; drawing; pastel; mixed media; portrait; sculpture; digital art; graphic novel; mural and wall hanging; printmaking; photography; ceramics; and textile art.

Many entries to the craft and design categories of the Koestler Awards have been produced as gifts for friends or family, or as part of coursework for qualifications. Others, such as Matchstick Models, are produced as a specialist hobby, using specially purchased matchsticks bought from the prison ‘canteen’. There are restrictions on tools and materials in secure settings, which limit and challenge the makers to think outside the box.

Revolving Story of a Prisoner’s Life 
HM Prison Dartmoor
Gold Award for Sculpture

Koestler Awards craft and design artforms include handmade book, calligraphy, handmade greetings card, graphic design, matchstick model, woodcraft, furniture, needlecraft, fashion, hair styling and beauty.


I met the Loch Ness Monster
Whilst strolling near the lake.
He expressed mild irritation
that some might think him fake.
I said ‘You’re too elusive
to be considered true.’
He replied ‘That’s not my problem.
I’ve got better things to do
than frolic on the surface
like some performing dog.
I’ve got my pride and besides
they’d just say that I’m a log.’
I couldn’t decide what was stranger
and you might just agree:
a talking prehistoric beast
or a camera-shy celebrity?

From A Mixed Bag
Dudley and Sandwell Probation Service
Bronze Award for Poetry Collection

January-April 2021

2021 Koestler Awards

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