Monday, February 14, 2011

Finding Conjugal Bliss in Dr. Graham's Celestial Bed:1781

Monday, February 14, 2011
Susan reporting:

Exploiting the love-lives of the rich and famous is hardly a new pursuit. From ancient times, charlatans have offered exotic, expensive potions to increase flagging libidos and unusual regimes designed to restore the magic to chilly marriages. One of the most infamous of these is Dr. James Graham (1745-1794), a self-proclaimed physician, self-promoter, and inventor (Wikipedia luridly categorizes him as a "sexologist") who captured the imagination of English society in the 1780s – and a good deal of their money besides.

Like all good quacks, Dr. Graham had a splendid gimmick, and his was the Temple of Hymen in Shomberg House in Pall Mall, a kind of overwrought clinic for his unusual treatments. His most profitable speciality was improving conjugal sex and fertility, and he found a clamoring audience among the upper classes whose survival depended on producing healthy heirs. Many of his customers were weakened by venereal disease and general dissipation, but that didn't stop Dr. Graham from making the same outlandish guarantees that often appear today in spam folders. His celebrity clientele included politicians John Wilkes and Charles James Fox, aristocrats such as the Duchess of Devonshire and the Duke of Richmond, and courtesans like Elizabeth Armistead and Mary Robinson.

While his treatments varied from elixirs to mud baths, the centerpiece of the Temple of Hymen was the Celestial Bed. This over-sized bed (it measured nine by twelve feet) could be tilted for an optimum angle, and was supported by glass rods that could permit the bed and its occupants to become so charged with static electricity that it gave off a greenish glow. Decorative automata, a pair of live turtle doves, and lush bouquets of fresh flowers were also features of the bed. Adding to the ambiance was a mattress stuffed with a special mixture of sweet-smelling herbs and hair from the tails of the most rampant English stallions, while a special celestial pipe organ played music calculated to inspire love-making. For the next three years, until Dr. Graham's extravagance landed him in prison for debt and bankruptcy, there were plenty of couples eager for the experience.

The price of a magical night in the Celestial Bed? An astonishingly steep fifty pounds. Did it work? Perhaps – though who wanted to admit that it didn't?

In honor of Valentine's Day, the Museum of London is recreating Dr. Graham's Celestial Bed as a special adults-only exhibition. For more information about this, as well as more detailed descriptions of Dr. Graham's claims, see here – though be forewarned that this post, like the exhibition, is probably best not read at work.

Above: The Celestial Bed, with the Rosy Goddess of Health reposing thereon, 1782


Tonya said...

I've never heard of this man before. Very interesting indeed nice piece for Valentines Day *wink* Blessings.

Felicia said...

That bed would certainly spruce up any episode of MTV Cribs. Can't believe not more people get a pair of automaton turtle doves! ;)

Emily said...

"hair from the tails of the most rampant English stallions" - Brilliant!

Joanna Waugh said...

Delicious blog, Susan! I read in a Mail Online review of the book "Doctor of Love" (9/20/2008) that Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, consulted Graham when she was trying to conceive an heir. His advice? That she "douse her genitals with champagne" and partake of "daily electric shock baths."

jennifer said...

Another famous lady of the era got her start showcasing her, uh, attributes in Dr. Graham's Temple of Health: the future Lady Emma Hamilton. Her grace, elegance and legendary sense of style, even with the filmiest veils and most revealing chemises, was apparently already in evidence and she snagged her first protector of note as a result.

Anonymous said...

This article is superb. What I am trying to do now is find a connection between Dr. James Graham (b.1745) and Dr/Rev Sylvester Graham (b.1794). The latter also being a "pioneer" of various aspects of health and advocating diet to achieve the opposite of what Dr. James was trying to achieve.

Good stuff !

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Don't you wish there were a photograph of this bed? That drawing above only hints at how truly strange it must have been. Dr. Graham really was a character. I don't know if he wrote his own descriptions of the various treatments, but they're wonderfully over the top.

And yes, Emma Hamilton did get her "start" at the Temple of Health.

Anonymous, I know there have been several recent biographies of Dr. James Graham - perhaps one of them discusses a possible connection with Rev.Sylvester Graham. Could be interesting!

Jacqui Lofthouse said...

I enjoyed your post about Dr James Graham and thought you might like to know that he was the subject of my novel 'The Temple of Hymen' published by Penguin in 1995 :)

Alexander Bird said...

Super post, thank you. But i was disappointed to read that Vic Gatrell thinks that the stories of Emma Hamilton's involvement with Graham are a myth. Does anyone know more about the evidence either way?

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