Sunday, February 2nd, 2014
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.