In 2010, Bill Bryson, renowned for his astute travel writing and comic adventures, decided he couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere for his next book, and so stayed at home and wrote At Home.
In the brilliant tour of his Victorian house, he visited every room and described the history of the various items therein. It was a unique and spectacular idea for a piece of writing in which you could shuffle around your own home for months, going from room to room drinking tea, eating biscuits, and, I suspect though I can’t confirm this, taking periodic naps in chairs that presented themselves perfectly for that purpose.
Turns out Bryson was a prophet as well as an author.
But I’d like to go one better, because I can’t even be bothered to leave the room. Moreover, I can’t even be bothered to leave my bed, and so this particular essay is going to be written about just that.
A bed. Two beds, in fact.
For the first one, we (well, you, actually, because I’m staying where I am) need to travel to 1590, a fairly odd year.
This is the year in which Maurice, Prince of Orange captured the entire city of Breda, in the southern Netherlands, using sixty-eight soldiers who breached Breda’s defences by hiding in a peat boat. This is also the year that Governor John White lost an entire American colony, that of Roanoke, the inhabitants of which were never seen again, despite attempts to find them on several occasions.
And, it was also the year that Hertfordshire carpenter Jonas Fosbrooke built an enormous four-poster bed, carved in oak, and measuring 3.4 metres long and 3.3 metres wide, that could comfortably provide a good sleep for ‘at least four couples'.
The story of the second begins one-hundred-and-fifty-five years later, in 1745, when James Graham was born in Edinburgh, destined to make his own bed, and lie in it.
While the bed that Fosbrooke made was mentioned by such literary geniuses as the playwright-of-dubious existence, William Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, and the playwright of definite existence Benjamin Jonson, in Epicoene, and the poet who was not a lord, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, in Don Juan, we know less than nothing about Fosbrooke himself.
We do know the bed was housed in a huge bedroom in the White Hart Inn in the town of Ware, and that being so large it would probably have been made on site, so it may be that Fosbrooke was local to the area. He was certainly an accomplished craftsman and, one suspects, very well-respected in the cabinetmakers guild.
James Graham, on the other hand, saw far less need for certification of any kind, and left medical school without achieving a degree, to set up as an apothecary in Yorkshire, and was, by 1770, in America, traipsing around the colonies as an occultist and aurist, inserting prosthetic eyes into empty sockets and performing cataract surgery.
Meanwhile back in Ware, Fosbrooke was honing his craft by carving European Renaissance motifs into the bed panels of his Great Bed of Ware, and adding marquetry based on the designs of the Dutch architect, painter, and engineer, Hans Vredeman de Vries, whose fame peaked in the late 1500s, with his books on ornaments. Where and how Fosbrooke acquired those books is, of course, unknown, but the fact that he did would suggest a certain level of literacy and intellect, or some really good connections in nearby London.
Now in Philadelphia, Graham, on the other hand, was not exactly honing his craft, but being shown a new one. It was the principles of electricity, and he was being taught by none other than Ebenezer Kinnersley, Benjamin Franklin's best friend and partner in innovation. And with that new knowledge on-board, and with the American Revolution humming far too loudly in his ears, he upped again and left for Bristol.
And here is where Fosbrooke and his exquisite craft, and Graham and his pseudo-quackery really diverge.
The Great Bed of Ware, which saw much ‘copulation and enjoyment’ in the White Hart when those kinds of pastimes were acceptable, sees far less as a bed of multiple occupancy in the Saracen’s Head down the road, where it was moved sometime in the nineteenth century, as Victorian’s forgot about enjoyment and employed stoicism in favor of sexual freedom, at least in public.
Later, around 1865, the Victoria & Albert Museum was offered the bed and shuddered at the idea of purchasing it for their exhibition, stating that it was a ‘coarse and mutilated relic in no [way] appropriate as a new acquisition’, and five years later it was moved again, this time to the former fortified manor of Rye House, where it sat, outside in the English weather, decaying further, as many of us do in the English weather, whether we're outside or not.
Decaying, conversely, was becoming Graham’s focus, or, more specifically, the reversal of it.
On return from a trip to Europe, Graham, with the help of the Duchess of Devonshire’s mother, opened a spa, equipped it with a plethora of paraphernalia, and began treating patients with electricity, magnetism, music, alchemical balms, gases, and medicines of his own contrivance, like‘Electrical Aether’, and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’.
He named his spa the Temple of Health, and its success was assured thanks to his ‘medical’ assistants, known as Goddesses of Health, employed to exhibit their bodies as models of physical perfection, which is where Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, got her start.
This brought Graham much wealth, society fame, and a lot of visitors, the tide of which were managed by his giant ‘porters’, nicknamed Gog and Magog, who kept order in the Temple.
While Fosbrooke may have inadvertently provided the means for couples to explore the wonders of marriage in the more accepting sixteenth century, the eighteenth century demanded that any serious advice for happiness in marriage was given via respectable and professional sources.
So in stepped Graham, and opened his second spa, this one with a slightly different focus. In 1781, the Temple of Hymen was open for business.
And at the very centre of this temple's grand atrium, with the phrase ‘Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth!’ inscribed on it, was Graham’s masterpiece, the Grand State Celestial Bed.
While nearly the same size as Fosbrooke’s, at 2.7 by 3.7 metres, it was a very different proposition altogether.
Any couple lying it would have looked up at the huge dome that covered it, and heard the musical automata above playing gentle melodies. Fresh flowers hung over the edge within which turtle doves cooed sweetly, while the occupants delighted in the stimulating fragrances from the Orient that were pumped in. Forty glass pillars created a henge of electro-magnetism that sparked all around them, and a clockwork movement celebrating the god of marriage whirled before their very eyes.
But this was just the prelude to the main event.
Because once naked, the frame of the bed would tilt up until it reached the 'position of best conception', according to Graham, and organ pipes would begin low growling sounds that got higher and intensified with the increased activity of the copulating couple, until the whole experience was concluded with a musical finale.
As the Roaring Twenties reached its own climax, several organizations began to think that the old Ware bed, with its exquisite construction and delightful carvings, might be worth rescuing.
But no-one felt the same about Graham, whose own entrepreneurial prowess began to let him down. His sudden fall from grace seems to have coincided with his very explicit lectures on how to conceive, and his insistence that sex was a ‘patriotic act’. The female half of his audience may have disagreed vehemently, and when he castigated prostitution the male half probably gave up and headed for Covent Garden, with a copy of Harris’s List safely tucked away in the their undergarments, if they wore any.
And so Graham was left, like the Great Bed of Ware, out in the cold.
He returned to Edinburgh, where he displayed what was left of his Great State Celestial Bed and created the therapy of ‘earth-bathing’, and lectured and preached on subjects like religion and diet, anti-slavery and women’s rights, while buried up to his neck in mud in the middle of the street.
How many children were conceived on the Grand State Celestial Bed, and whether it did provide much needed help for couples whose marriages lacked a certain spark, is unknown. Whether the Great Bed of Ware, without any of Graham’s bells and whistles, had similar success in promoting the conception of offspring is also, sadly, not recorded.
Finally, in 1931, the Great Bed of Ware was finally rescued from its garden location, and stabilized and restored at great cost by, and you knew this was coming, the Victoria & Albert Museum.
And finally, in 1794, after experimenting with fasting as a means to delay the inevitable, Graham died, not quite fifty years of age.
A happy ending for Fosbrooke, a premature one for Graham.
photo by Pixabay