Erotic tiles from London pub on display for the first time

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London’s most iconic and oldest pubs, has had a couple of run-ins with fire. The original pub at 145 Fleet Street was built in 1538. It burned down during the Great London Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt in 1667. That same 1667 reconstruction still stands but it was put to heated test in 1962 when fire broke out on the upper storey. Thankfully the damage was not catastrophic. In fact, in one way at least, it was a boon. A set of old tiles was discovered in the debris with explicit depictions of impressively varied sexual encounters.

Because they were too awesome to be seen by the general public, the tiles were hustled away to the Museum of London for study, not display. Experts found they were plaster of Paris relief tiles with sooting on the back that suggests they were used as fireplace surrounds. There was also scorching on the front of some from unintentional fires like the one that exposed them. Some were in good condition with just a few scratches; some were missing significant portions of the scene with only a disembodied foot on a pillow remaining; some were broken into several pieces. From the dress of the figures, particularly their blunt-toed shoes, curators determined the tiles were made after 1740.

Among the more notable scenes depicted are one of a woman whipping a man’s naked buttocks with a bundle of twigs while another woman kneels in front of him, one of a woman in a basket on a rope, lowering herself onto a man on his back underneath her, one of a woman bent over holding a pillow while a man penetrates her from behind, one of a woman straddling a man seated on a chair. In the ribald 18th century, these kinds of materials were relatively common, if you had the money to acquire them. Moulded plaster reliefs were not expensive to produce, but the erotic subject matter would have jacked up (snicker) the price considerably. Very few of these erotic artifacts from this time have survived.

It’s not clear why the pub was so spicily decorated upstairs. One possibility is that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese had a little side business as a brothel going on. They could also have adorned a gentleman’s club room. The 18th century saw a proliferation of libertine private societies like The Hellfire Club which met to celebrate wine, women and song.

The collection was put in storage at the museum and hasn’t seen the light of say since. There aren’t even images on their entries in the online ceramics catalog, unlike with the thousands of other far less interesting tiles. Small pictures of one complete tile (a fairly staid one) and a few inscrutable fragments are available as prints for sale (the first eight results here), and that’s it.

That will change come Valentine’s Day, when the complete set will be put on public display for the first time at an evening exhibition for adults only alluringly titled Late London: City of Seduction. It’s a one night only event, and, in my nerdy opinion, a far more productive couples activity than boring old dinner reservations. Chocolate at Hampton Court Palace during the day, then absinthe tasting and sex tile viewings at night. Now that’s how you show a date a good time.

Having said that, I think it’s lame in this day and age that the tiles aren’t on regular display. I thought we were past needing secret rooms in museums for ancient Roman phalluses and erotic art to be hidden away where only men of wealth and hilariously theoretical good character were allowed to see them. Surely we’re past hiding them in storage all together and only allowing the public to enjoy them when there’s a nice Valentine’s Day profit to be made in ticket sales.

Museum of London curator Jackie Keily says in this article that “for obvious reasons these tiles are not normally out on public display.” Why is it obvious? If you’re concerned about children being exposed to sexually graphic historical material (I personally am not, but I get that it raises issues for some), you can keep the artifacts in an adults-only space. Otherwise, what’s the big deal? I say let the Georgian freak flag fly.

36 thoughts on “Erotic tiles from London pub on display for the first time

  1. Great images 🙂

    Ye Olde Chesire Cheese had a side business as a brothel? Imagine that!

    A gentleman’s club room would have been a less confrontational explanation for the tiles, but is there evidence of debauchery going on in men’s clubs in the later 18th century?

  2. Liv, you’re absolutely right about museums not hiding these amazing things in drawers. I’m a 70-year old ex-nun and I don’t find them the least bit “offensive”. In fact, from the looks on their faces, the people involved seem to be having an hilarious time. Beats hell out of a bull-baiting or a ratting exhibition.

    “Chocolate at Hampton Court Palace during the day, then absinthe tasting and sex tile viewings at night.” would be a Valentine’s Day to remember.

    Why does England get all the good stuff?

  3. Liv, you’re absolutely wrong about museums not hiding these amazing things in drawers. I’m not a 70-year old ex-nun, however I think society ought to have a taboo on public portrayals of sex because not to have one would encourage licentiousness. The proliferation of such images (and worse), and the sense they breed that sexual urges are not to be bridled or restricted but rather to be indulged in willy-nilly ( :hattip: ) contributes to a libertine mindset in the citizenry which can then lead to harmful and beastly sexual behaviour.

    The law will pick up the pieces through punishment, but it won’t be able to undo the harm and pain caused most likely to the weak and innocent in society.

    1. Oh, interesting. Tell me, what harm do you believe has come to you from viewing the images in this post, assuming you’ve viewed them? What should museums do with objects that some consider inspiring of licentiousness? The ancient Romans, for instance, did not sexualize phalluses. They were symbols of good luck, they warded off the evil eye, and were particularly popular as amulets for children. I think the history of sexual mores is fascinating and one well-worth exploring, and seeing things through other people’s eyes is always a valuable exercise when exploring past societies.

  4. Sorry, I disagree. I won’t go into a debate over this because this isn’t that sort of blog, but there is nothing wrong with sex…or with portrayals of sex. That’s close-minded thinking of the worst sort.

    Sexually related materials don’t do anything for me except, as in this case, to make me laugh, but phalluses and depictions of sex and sexual graffiti were all over the ancient world and their civilizations did just fine. One of the most beautiful books in the world is the Kama Sutra.

    There is nothing “harmful” or “beastly” about consensual sex. It is only in those cultures where women are considered to be property and sex is “owned” that anti-sex strictures arise.

    And, those are the worst of civilizations.

    1. I too am a fan of the bawdy arts in general, and am endlessly fascinated by the diverse ways in which humans define their own sexuality. It’s a particular bugaboo of mine when museums attempt to hide these artifacts, because it gives them both more power than some old geegaws should have (like the power to cause beastly sexual behavior) and because it gelds the past. Human beings have been sex obsessed since there were human beings. How can you study history without looking at the history of sexuality?

  5. Hels-
    The book London’s Sinful Secret will give you more than enough details on every imaginable aspect of this subject in 568 pages. It is currently in print and you can buy it on

  6. “Point to what you want to pay for”. Same thing found in brothels from all ages and corners of the earth. Because tongue-tied johns.

  7. Thank you for sharing the peek at these tiles. I wish there wasn’t such a prudish philosophy regarding the public display of such art.

    People tend to forget that sex is and always has been a part of art, history and life in general. As you point out in your article there is the depiction of erotic art in the Roman era. Not to mention the Greeks, Egyptians, and other cultures.

    Again, thank you for the article.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It seems to me that museums, which have an educating mission, should be particularly wary of hiding away the past because it might be uncomfortable to some.

  8. Sandy, you are free to disagree. No need to apologise. Correct me if I’m wrong but I would have thought that Livius would welcome debate on material posted on this blog.

    There can be things wrong with sex, and there can be things wrong with portrayals of sex. You go too far when you say there is absolutely nothing wrong with sex. Perhaps that is a sort of close-mindedness. In fact you made reference to an example of something that can be wrong with sex: i.e. when it is not consensual.

    But, there can be things that are ‘harmful’ or ‘beastly’ even about consensual sex.

    Sexually related materials may not have any particularly negative effect on you, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a completely different effect on others.

    Whether or not ancient civilizations ‘did just fine’ is debatable. They ‘did just fine’ until they fell apart. And even before they fell apart there was much that was wrong with them – things that we can learn from.

    Ancient civilizations, which you admire for their ‘phalluses and depictions of sex and sexual graffiti’, did in fact treat women as ‘property’.

    1. Debate on, Marcus. I’m glad to hear a perspective so different from my own.

      Not to speak for her, but Sandy noted in her original response that she was referring to consensual sex, so I think we’re all agreed on the perniciousness of rape culture.

      Every society falls apart at some point or another. Entropy cannot be denied. It seems to me that attitudes towards sex would only be instrumental in that process if reproduction were inhibited, like with the Shakers, for instance.

      Do you think there’s anything inherently damaging in the portrayals of sex in this post?

  9. These are adorable, and everyone seems to having the best time! I don’t see any evidence that they are being forced or are victims. All adult women, and they liked ’em a little more…robust back then,didn’t they? I’ve read that the Romans did the same “Point to what you want” thing . I would imagine if there was a brothel, the women working in such a place got better treatment and lived much better than street walkers. Human beings are sexual creatures and if you crush down its expression in one area, like squeezing dough in your hand it will just escape in another area. End of proselytizing.

  10. Nor am I, Liv. But, awesomeness is awesomeness.

    The best Valentine night I ever had was a sunset ride in an untralight, over the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a great dinner!

    I think it was the “Chocolate at Hampton Court” prequel that got my attention. The US needs a palace.

  11. Since Liv doesn’t mind, I’d like to address your points.

    There is NOTHING wrong with consensual sex. Whether it is missionary position or swinging from the chandeliers, as long as the participants agree, it’s all good. While there are many forms of sexual entertainment that don’t appeal to me, I would never be arrogant enough to peek into someone’s bedroom and tell them that they are “doing it wrong”.

    I don’t care if someone gets sexual pleasure from tickling goldfish, as long as the fish are good with it.

    As Liv said, all civilizations break up at one time or another. I’m a dilettante at history, but I know of no civilization that died because of it’s sexual practices. Our own is more likely to die because of large, nasty objects filled with combustable atoms than because of small, pleasant objects filled with sperm.

    My personal opinion is that if portrayals of sex have a negative effect on someone, that someone needs to seek help. Children who are raised to think of the human body, and all it can do, as simply a part of nature are far more emotionally healthy than the converse.

    There are quite a few ancient civilizations where women were not “owned”. Civilizations where women had equal legal rights with men, where they could own property, divorce and have a say in the day-to-day running of society. Egypt comes immediately to mind.

    And, the Egyptians were free about sex, if their poems are any indication.

    We DON’T learn from ancient civilizations. Or modern-ish ones. That’s the whole point of that “doomed to repeat it” thingy.

    We’d probably be better off if we did.

  12. I like your “dough” analogy and I think you’ve hit that nail bang on it’s flat little head.

    Sexual strictures have little to do with sex. Like rape, they’re all about control…about owning people down to their very core.

    Chattel slavery is only one form. What’s sad is that mental slavery is chosen by the slave.

  13. I wouldn’t say that any harm has come to me from viewing these particular images. However, as I mentioned to Sandy, it is a fallacy to suggest that because something does not have a negative effect on you personally, it is therefore impossible for it to have a negative effect on anybody else.

    I was playing devil’s advocate to a certain extent. These images are relatively innocuous, and they do have value as pieces of history. I think that the museum has struck the right balance exhibiting them as part of a special evening event for adults only. The main problem as I see it, is that a more lax approach than the one they have taken would feed into the seemingly common notion that portrayals of sex more generally within our society are all as innocuous as these pieces. I don’t believe that they are for the reasons that I have mentioned.

    1. I disagree that hiding them for 52 years and only showing them for one night is the right balance. It seems heavily imbalanced to me, especially when you consider that they do sell prints of the tiles on their website.

      It also seems unfair to put all the weight of concern about sexual permissiveness on the shoulders of these tiles. They should be allowed to simply be witness to their own history rather than be made symbols of a far wider issue that isn’t really relevant to their context. If they are indeed innocuous, as you agree they are, then why not direct your concern to things that are not?

  14. Livius, I wasn’t saying that attitudes towards sex played a major role in the collapse of ancient societies. I was only trying to point out that the seemingly liberal attitudes that they had, and which Sandy admires, did not necessarily play a salutary role in those societies even in their prime.

    I believe the portrayals of sex in this post are damaging to the extent that they feed into the notion that all portrayals of sex are innocuous.

    1. Well, that’s a far broader argument than I made and one that I think unfairly politicizes a set of Georgian tiles. I think they themselves are innocuous. They are also rare historical survivals from a period in which they were once common. I don’t think the existence of other, non-innocuous portrayals of sex is a good reason to keep these artifacts out of public view.

  15. Sandy, You are wrong that there is absolutely nothing wrong with consensual sex, ever. Participants may consent to a sexual act which is degrading to some or all of those involved. They may consent to an act that is damaging physically or emotionally to some or all of those involved. They may consent to an act which is damaging, physically or emotionally, to the child(ren) that result from that act. In the case of pornography, for example, they may consent to an act which encourages others in society to commit acts which cause physical or emotional harm to themselves or to others. In consenting to commit such acts they play a role in normalising such behaviour in society as a whole thereby multiplying the damage.

    It simply does not follow, logically speaking, that because consent is given to such an act it thereby ceases to be degrading, or to have any negative effects. You may not care about all of that, but it is the weak and vulnerable in society who suffer so that we can enjoy licentiousness under the guise of liberty; so that we can sleep soundly knowing that we are not ‘arrogant’ or prudish.

    I wasn’t claiming that any ancient civilization died because of its sexual practices. That isn’t to say that they ‘did just fine’ though.

    What happens to the rest of us if the person for whom portrayals of sex have a negative effective does not seek help as you think they should?

    There were ancient civilizations which were ‘free about sex’ where women were nevertheless owned and treated unequally. It is a fallacy to say that being ‘free about sex’ = women being treated justly.

  16. Spend 10 minutes observing your local child support court proceedings and you’ll understand why causal sex is frowned upon. I’m no Puritan but sexuality in a society where you get married or have children at 16-18 and you generally died by 35 is a heck of a lot different than modern society today where you’ll be paying child support for 18 years.

    1. I’m not sure who you’re addressing here. What does the purported prevalence of casual sex in today’s society have to do with whether museums should hide historical artifacts because they depict sex? Incidentally, life expectancy is an average, not a mean. That makes the figures inherently deceptive, because high infant mortality pulls down the average. If you survived childhood in 18th century London, you could expect to live into your 70s, easily.

  17. I’m not addressing anybody. My misread of consensual for casual reminded me of a place I had to visit earlier this week, and hence, the non sequitur post. So be it!

  18. I direct my concern to both because I see an interconnectedness in society, which you don’t (quite possibly because it isn’t there), whereby a nonchalant attitude towards something that seems relatively innocuous to you and me today (but which would not have seemed that way to a previous generation), can pave the way for a subtle and gradual movement in societal attitudes towards the normalisation of what seems beyond the pale to us now, in the future.

    I agreed that they have value as pieces of history. The museum has perhaps not struck quite the right balance. However, I don’t think that historical items can ‘simply be witness to their own history’ without influencing the society around them in one way or another depending on how that society absorbs and handles them.

  19. Sorry…that posted unintentionally…
    At the museum in Naples we viewed the “pornography” display. Much of the art found “distasteful to Victorian minds had bee

  20. Why would sexually graphic tiles taken from a *PUB*, which is an adult gathering place, be put on display in museum where children are?

    Leave them in the pub where they belong.

  21. Poor Marcus… these haven’t harmed him, but they will harm others.
    Get some help, mate – and get your pants out of your arse.

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