Closure and Disclosure – A Seemingly Cool Record Disclosing a Hot Subject

Jan Hietala

Project Period:
Type: Affiliated PhD research
Program Area(s): Critical Projections/Critical Historiography


Sexual identities disclosed in architectural documents, is the subject I have analysed for the last four years, and would like to see as the starting point for a discussion about a possible influence of sexual identity in architecture and the methodological approach to this issue. On the watercolour ‘Perspective of the Hall and the Staircase at Strawberry Hill’ we see exactly what the title implicates. In a pre-expressionistic manner the draughtsman has constructed a dramatic image. Most probably the draughtsman utilised a Camera Obscura. The watercolour is attributed to Richard Bentley (1708-82) dated c.1753. Seemingly objectively Bentley depicts the interior space in a house, with the assistance of an apparatus. As we will see it is an ambiguous piece of art.

In 1748 Horace Walpole (1717-97) undertook the reconstruction of a 17-century farmhouse in Twickenham Middlesex outside London. He christened the project Strawberry Hill. He was not alone in his deed. To his support he invited Bentley amongst others. Sometimes as many as for men, periodically lived under the same roof. It is perhaps the most written about villa of all time. Walpole was the first to write about its building process in a correspondence consisting of some 8000 letters, the lot kept at Lewis Walpole Library Yale University.

In a letter of 1753 Walpole describes the interior space seen on Bentley watercolour. There is a discrepancy between the two records. Walpole approaches the interior in a pre-cinematographic manner. If a visitor took Walpole by his words, he/she would experience the space set in motion. Bentley’s approach is the opposite. He presents an empty stage, a frozen moment where no trace of human activity is detectable, not unlike early daguerreotypes of Paris’s boulevards shot in broad daylight curiously abandoned. There is yet another discrepancy between the two records. When Walpole vividly concentrates on the architectural benefits of the design, Bentley discloses something of a more private nature. His perspective leads to a chamber. Behind a door ajar we see a flesh-pink glow. Not unlike the contracted draughtsman in Peter Greenaway’s film ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ (1982), Bentley reveals something his benefactor perhaps did not want to: his bedchamber in an all male household. This chamber has until now never been described.

Other drawings by Bentley, reveals for the context interesting details. On a drawing depicting a four-post bed, presumably once standing in the Pink Bedchamber, we sense the imprint of bodies in the mattress and cushions. The soft lines are explicit. The next illustration depicts the chamber but from its outside. Here Bentley deliberately shuts the blinds and cuts out any curious glances. The façade seems to be un-penetrable. At stake is if there is something to learn from studying historical material, with a both subjective and objective analytical framework? Is there more than one possible method to vivisect a document? May we allow us to be firm when describing historic sources, and liberal in our associations?

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