Dr James Graham was a sex therapist, an 18th century showman, a gentleman of the Enlightenment and an “emperor of quacks”. He was also the inventor of an extraordinary fertility sex aid: the Grand State Celestial Bed.
James Graham (1745–1794) was born in Edinburgh where he trained in medicine but left medical school without completing a degree. He was deeply influenced by a trip to America in the 1770’s where he witnessed the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin and believed that electricity could help with sexual problems.
Graham returned to London and by July 1980, backed by rich and influential aristocrats such as Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, opened a medical establishment in the illustrious and fashionable Adelphi location called the Temple of Health and Hymen (here meaning god of marriage ceremonies in Greek mythology). He offered a combination of sex and health advice, art installation and new science. The grand house was a mind-blowing wonder of science fiction, futurist wonder and erotic charge. Electricity sparkled and crackled through gilded glass, perfume wafted through the rooms and strange musical tones drifted from glass harmonica. There were fiery dragons, mirrors and dramatic new lighting techniques. Graham didn’t just rely on the magic of science and technology either. Beautiful women, the Guardians of Divine Health, whose nudity was barely troubled by diaphanous gowns, greeted the visitors. There were religious and healthy procreation doctrines and ether while other vapour inhalations were available in the gift shop. The temples proved to be so popular that a one-way system had to be implemented for the carriages of the bedazzled visitors.
Beneath the spectacle Graham expounded progressive ideas on women rights and education, politics, slavery and sexuality. He advocated moderate eating, vegetarianism, fresh air, exercise and mutual sexual pleasure within marriage in a creative and enlightened age where many considered that women enjoyed sex as much as men. He offered advice, lectures and publications on marriage and sex. One of his most passionate beliefs was the importance of strict genital hygiene in an age where cleanliness was not of the highest order. He outlined this belief in typically extravagant prose.
“…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 like a couple of steel balls, of a pound a piece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet!”
He recommended morning and night, and always after sex. Spouses would stay faithful once they were used to such cleanliness, and the “rich purse of Venus, the manly standard of love” would always obey the “summons of Hymen!”
Buoyed by the success of his temple Graham opened a second venue in Pall Mall, the Temple of Prolific Hymen. It was here that he unveiled his great bed in 1781. It proved to be a wonderful fantasy, an extravagant fertility aid and a financial disaster that broke Graham. He charged £50 a night, a huge sum for the time, but could never recoup the costs. His career became one of decline and lampooning by the satirists in a new age of print and media, one that Graham himself had exploited for his publications and publicity. He was forced back to Edinburgh by bankruptcy. He turned into a religious fanatic and gave public exhibitions ‘earth-bathing’ by lecturing buried up to his neck in earth. He suffered bouts of mental illness, possible ether addiction and started experimenting with extreme fasting to prolong his life. The doctor, once the charismatic, handsome toast of London, died a mentally ill and broken man in Edinburgh in 1794.
The Grand State Celestial Bed
Graham’s bed has ensured him a legendary place in the history of erotica although it has also overshadowed other aspects of his work. The “medico, magnetico, musico, electrical bed” promised divine, marital ecstasy and, just as important to Graham, children for married barren couples and the nation.
It was twelve feet by nine feet and canopied by a vast dome that supported musical automata with mechanical musicians, fresh flowers and live turtle doves.
Oriental fragrances and ‘aethereal’ gases wafted from the dome. The music and scents were controlled by a bedside panel.
The underside of the dome was lined with mirrors to reflect streams of light and the frolics of the lovers.
The bed was supported with forty glittering multi-coloured pillars of cut glass.
The inner frame of the bed was designed to tilt so that the gentleman could “follow his lady down-hill” to aid conception.
A generator sparkled the bed with electricity and created a celestial fire of an electrical glow, heated the mattress and charged the couple with the magical and aphrodisiac properties that at the time were believed to be provided by electricity.
A circle of magnets provided a “sweet undulating, titillating, vibratory, soul-dissolving, marrow-melting motion”.
The mattress was stuffed with horse tail hair from the finest English stallions, the sheets naturally silky and available in different shades.
Just to be sure that the couples understood this was more than just sex a statue of Hymen stood at the summit of the dome and at the head of the bed was a moving clockwork tableau with the good doctor’s favourite commandment sparkling with electricity: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth!”
The climax of the bed was provided by the ecstatic couple. Organ pipes triggered by the movements of the couple breathed out “celestial sounds” whose increasing intensity mirrored the passion of the lovers.
One drawback of the bed, aside from some of its more dubious scientific claims and enormous costs, was the presence of servants hidden away nearby to turn the generator, charge up the clockwork automata and replenish the “balmy odours”.
Sadly no known illustrations of the bed survive today although Graham’s patents, notes and publications are held at the British Library. However, a modern interpretation by Tom Hunken is based on details given by Graham in one of his lectures and gives a good impression of what the great bed might have been.
Graham was a man of the Enlightenment who embraced all its exciting discoveries, innovations and ideas. His use of electricity and magnetism reflected the contemporary belief in their therapeutic and healing values and in many ways he was ahead of his time with his beliefs and his use of oxygen, nitrous oxide and ether in his treatments. Despite his showmanship he also genuinely wanted couples to have a satisfying marriage and sex life.
In the end Graham’s downfall was, in his own words, from “a too eccentric and too expensive imagination”.
Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed by Lydia Syson More about the book and the author