A night on the tiles with 18th century erotica…

By jackie keily on 3 Feb 2014
Curator Jackie Keily with 18th century erotic tile.

Curator Jackie Keily with 18th century erotic tile.

London has always been a hotbed for the seductive, saucy and down-right sordid. From the brothels of Roman Londinium and the stews of medieval Bankside to the Restoration Rakes and Soho’s swinging sixties, this city has long traded in the currency of sex. Erotic material – such as these relief tiles – was widely available in the 18th century, if one knew where to go and had the means with which to acquire it. Warning: explicit images in post!

A cropped section of a fragmented 18th century erotic relief tile. Part of a set of eight tiles discovered at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese Pub in London's Fleet Street following a fire in the 1960s. The tile depicts a man and two women. One woman is kneeling behind the man holding a switch and beating the man on his naked buttocks. She is dressed in a low-necked dress with overskirt and frills on the sleeves. The man's trousers are round his knees. The other woman kneels in front of him.

18th century erotic tile depicting a woman beating a man’s buttocks.

Hidden away from view, the tiles depict scenes of overt sexual activity, and were only uncovered following a fire at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street. Found in an upstairs room of the pub, the surfaces of some of the tiles are blackened, suggesting that they were located in the surround around a fireplace. Given the material and method of manufacture these would not have been particularly expensive tiles, though the nature of the subject matter might have given them a higher value!

A cropped section of an 18th century erotic relief tile. The tile depicts a man and woman having sex, with the woman seated on a stool.

A cropped section of an 18th century erotic relief tile. The tile depicts a man and woman having sex, with the woman seated on a stool.

What’s likely is that the tiles were made for temporary display – perhaps hidden away from everyday drinkers but revealed when the room was used for bawdier purposes. Men’s drinking clubs, and even city brothels were commonplace in the 18th century, and the tiles could have been put up and taken down quite easily to reflect the changing needs of the pub’s clientele…

18th century tile depicting a man and woman having sex. The man is standing behind the woman and she is bent over, holding a cushion. The man's trousers are round his knees and he is wearing a wig with a small ponytail.

18th century tile depicting a man and woman having sex.

For obvious reasons these racy tiles are not normally out on public display, so we are pleased to show the complete set, for the first time ever, at our Late London: City of Seduction event at the Museum of London, just down the road from where they were originally discovered.

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