Dr Sophie Read





In, Out, and Again: Reading and Drawing John Soane’s Lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1817 and 1820)

Second supervisor(s)
Professor Peg Rawes

This thesis shifts existing scholarship on the lectures of the architect John Soane (1753-1837), from previous examination of them in architectural history as a set of written texts illustrated by drawings (Watkin 1996 and 2000, Bolton 1929), towards a new understanding of how such lectures operated as events with associated textual documents, as part of a nineteenth-century performance practice of architecture. Considering Soane’s lectures as a form of historically-specific performance practice, and drawing on performance studies as a methodology for the practice of this history, my thesis argues for greater acknowledgement of the active role of the drawings in the Soane’s lectures than has previously been recognised. It also proposes a more nuanced appreciation of the way that words and drawings were used together by the Soane office to practise and perform architectural knowledge in the lecture room. Through analysis of new primary archival evidence related to Soane’s lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) – evidence and events not yet investigated academically – I explore Soane’s lecturing practice in relation to the particularities of the oral culture of the period and within the R.I.’s existing strong ‘arts-and-sciences’ culture of performance, rooted in a longer tradition of scientific demonstration (Franzel and DuPress 2015, Zimmerman, 2009, Golinski 1992). 

With reference to existing work in the field (Rendell 2009, Grillner 2012, Hammond 2012, Bonnevier 2007), I make the case for architectural history as a practice (Rendell 1996) that is performative. Overall the structure of the thesis, which combines ‘reading’ and ‘drawing’ with the terms ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘and again’, becomes an extended experiment in the ways that historical evidence is performed. It allows me to compare different actions of reading evidence (directly/closely; contextually/at distance; and repeatedly/performatively), and to facilitate (self)reflections on the process of the practice of architectural historiography.


The methods of my PhD were informed by performance and theatre history and theory, and it is through them, that I position my own practice of architectural history as performative and a performance. Four methods emerged in response to working with key historical documents left over from Soane’s lectures. As such, these methods were not given but found, influenced in part by Roland Barthes concept of non-method (1977 trans. 2013). 

Two of my methods were tied to acts of ‘redoing’ Soane’s RI lecture scripts and lecture drawings. The first, explored transcription as an embodied method for close reading the manuscripts and for generating and noticing the questions at stake in this evidence. Transcribing also served an analytical role in identifying the different hands in the manuscript and their interplay, and interpreting the relationships between the visual and verbal in Soane’s lecturing practice, that are evident on the page. The second method, involved remaking and restaging the lecture drawings in the RI lecture room itself. Here, with other bodies and life-sized facsimiles of the lecture drawings, we collectively experimented with workshopping how the drawings were used to communicate architecture within the physical space and ephemeral medium of the lecture. This allowed me to test out the evidence, allow for competing interpretations, and to ask questions, which were not possible to explore in the archive. This included what the drawings looked like from different parts of the theatre, their effects when encountered over time, in sequence and also when experienced in relation to the words that were uttered aloud (i.e. their on-stage architectural meaning when ‘delivered’). In both cases, of transcribing scripts and restaging drawings, these performative practices of architectural history played an active role in reading the history – revealing evidence for the past that otherwise would have remained hidden / unnoticed.

A third method was to harness the live, situated qualities of reading and encountering the lecture scripts and drawings within my own descriptions of the archival work I had conducted. In the thesis I enacted for the reader the processes of historical thinking and questioning which are involved in reading and drawing conclusions about the past from specific, material sources. 

A fourth method, which brought together all of the above, was to employ a performative structure, combining ‘reading’ and ‘drawing’, with the terms ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘and again’, exploring the relation of writing and reading to drawing, at the cross-over of verbal and visual practices, and in so doing to examine the relation of performative practice to the practice of architectural historical writing. 


Structure (1)

Structure (2)

Structure (3)

Related publications

Her recent work has been published in the anthologies, Architecture Through Drawing (with Adrian Forty, ‘The Limits of Drawing’, Lund Humphries, 2019) and Architecture and Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies, Technologies (with Tijana Stevanović, ‘Overpainting that Jostles’, Routledge, 2018) and in the journal Romanticism (forthcoming special issue ‘Romanticism and the RI’, 2022). Sophie is currently writing the book manuscript of her research on the architect John Soane’s neglected Royal Institution lectures as a form of early-nineteenth-century architectural performance (forthcoming, MIT Press). This book is also supported by a Paul Mellon Publication Grant and Samuel H. Kress History of Art Grant.


Dr Sophie Read is an interdisciplinary architectural historian, artist and educator. She is Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow (2020/21) and Lecturer (Teaching) at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, where she teaches history and theory on the BSc Architecture, and BSc Architectural and Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) undergraduate programmes. She is Programmes Co-coordinator of the school’s MPhil/PhD in Architecture Design and Architectural and Urban History and Theory, and also Admissions Tutor for the BSc Architectural and Interdisciplinary Studies programme. Sophie’s research interests include architecture and orality, the history of the lecture as an architectural medium (and its distinctiveness alongside the architect’s other customary media), architectural drawings from the nineteenth century until the present, and intersections between architectural history and theatre and performance history. She was trained in the practice of drawing at Camberwell School of Art (2004-07, First Class), before studying architectural history at the Bartlett at Masters (2009-10, Distinction) and PhD, funded by a 3 Year Doctoral Award. This trajectory has informed her approach to historical enquiry as a creative and performative process of questioning and performing evidence and the politics of the archive; a method of working also informed by feminist art and architectural history, performance studies and art practice.