The Celestial Bed installation by Bompas & Parr

By star guest on 2 Feb 2011
Sam Bompas & Harry Parr (illustrations by Emma Rios, photography by Carl Palmer

Sam Bompas & Harry Parr (illustrations by Emma Rios, photography by Carl Palmer)

For Valentine’s Day 2011 Bompas & Parr is recreating James Graham’s Celestial Bed in the Museum of London. Visitors will be able to experience London’s most notorious bed and drink Bompas & Parr’s love philter which incorporates phenyethlyeamine, the world’s only known aphrodisiac. Bompas & Parr is working with illustrator Emma Rios on the design of the Celestial Bed that will be exhibited alongside the Lord Mayor’s Coach at the Museum of London’s City site.

Historic context
Dr James Graham (1745-1794) was a medical entrepreneur, quack and pioneer in sex therapy with a genius for spectacle. Having learnt the principles of electricity and magnetism from Benjamin Franklin Graham established himself as sex therapist to London Society. Graham thought that the effect of static electricity to make hair stand on end proved that it had the power to make any part of the body erect. He claimed that fluids would spurt more vigorously from charged bodies. 

In 1781 Dr Graham built a Temple of Hymen in Shomberg House in Pall Mall filled with equipment for electrically stimulating patrons who included the Duchess of Devonshire, Charles James Fox, John Wilkes and courtesans such as Elizabeth Armistead. Graham even employed a succession of “Goddesses of Health” to help demonstrate what he saw as indicators of health a ‘cold, glowing, full, liquid, balmy firmness of the genital parts’. One of his models is said to Emma Lyon, who in later years would marry Sir William Hamilton and become Lord Horatio Nelson’s lover.

The centerpiece of the Temple of Hymen was the Celestial Bed which was reserved for those able to afford the fee of a mighty £50 a night. Graham advertised that anyone who rented the bed for the night would be “blessed with progeny.” Sterility or impotence would be cured.

The bed measured twelve by nine feet and could be tilted to achieve the perfect angle for conception. The mattress was filled with “sweet new whwat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers” as well as the hair from the tales of fine English stallions.

The bed was insulated from the floor by 40 glass rod supports allowing the whole bed to become electrically charged. As aristocratic lovers lay in the bed static electricity would cause corona discharge across the headboard manifesting itself in a faint green glow around focused points. The air would be bathed with a magnetic fluid “calculated to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves”.

To heighten the experience soft music was played (which increased in vigour with guests’ passion), the air was perfumed from below and was said to include ether or nitrous oxide, a large mirror was suspended across the bed, and two live turtle doves sat at the apex of the headboard surrounded by flowers. The phrase “Be fruitful. Multiply and Replenish the Earth” was inscribed on the headboard.

Graham’s bed was enormously successful and fashionable London flocked to patronise his Temple of Hymen and hear Graham’s tittilating lectures on sexual health. His recommendations were filtered through metaphors and grandiloquent rhetoric.

“The daily cold washing of the genitals, for example, would not only ‘lock the cock and secure all for the next rencontre’, but also much improve the testicular condition: ‘certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be[come] like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet!”

Sadly Graham’s spending outpaced what he was able to earn and by 1784 he was forced to sell most of his possessions. Graham focused his attention on another therapy: earth bathing.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814

Celestial Bed for Museum of London
For Valentine’s Day 2011 Bompas & Parr is recreating James Graham’s Celestial Bed in the Museum of London. 

The bed will be installed alongside the Lord Mayor’s Coach and will be pyramidal in form. Visitors to the museum will be able to use the electrically charged bed to celebrate their love. They will also be able to sample one of Bompas & Parr’s love philters containing the world’s only known aphrodisiac phenyethleamine in conjunction with yohimbe bark.

Ilustrator Emma Rios is designing the external form while a site specific soundscape by composer Dom James will provide background music.

Visitors with heart conditions will not be permitted to use the installation.

A note on the love philter
Phenylethylamine is a trace amine occurring naturally in the human brain, where it causes the release of dopamine in the mesolimbic system of the brain (associated with pleasure) and is often known as “the love drug.” It is used in our brains when we fall in love and feel passion, and levels of this chemical peak during orgasm. In structure, it is similar to amphetamines, raises blood pressure and glucose levels.

Chocolate has always been viewed as an aphrodisiac, ever since its use by the Aztecs and scientists believe the presence of PEA in it, along with a few other chemicals could be responsible for this. However, the amount of this substance in chocolate is not thought to be able to produce a very strong effect as, when PEA is administered orally, it is rapidly metabolised by the enzyme MAO (Monoamine oxidase), before much of it can affect the CNS.

If, however, it is used in conjunction with an MAO inhibitor such as Yohimbine, it can have a powerful effect. Read on:

Yohimbine is usually administer in yohimbe bark, a traditional aphrodisiac in west Africa where the plant grows, though it is now prescribed in America for impotence. The active ingredient, yohimbine is an alkaloid believed to act as a adreno-receptor blocker, increasing blood flow and production of adrenaline which can enhance physical stimulation.

At the same time it is a mild MAO inhibitor which means that it would allow the effect of any PEA consumed to be more profound.

Valentine Late
Come to the Museum of London for our spectacular annual Valentine late. Alongside open galleries and a Valentine themed bar, try out some seductive Latin dance moves as Stardustball lead starters classes in the Cha Cha Cha and Rumba. Make vintage Valentine cards at a paper-cutting workshop; enjoy poetry readings in the Pleasure Gardens by London’s most up-and-coming gay poets; join curators at an object-handling table to find out about risqué ‘x-rated’ objects from the Museum’s storerooms; and sample some sensational aphrodisiac love philters by London’s most creative catering duo Bompas & Parr, recently featured on Heston Blumenthal’s Feast.
Minimum age: 18
Fee £6 (concs £4.5): advanced booking required. Buy tickets here
In partnership with Polari
Dates and times
Monday, 14 February, 18.30 – 22.00

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