Tattoo Ducky identified by Dr Matt Lodder as by Tom Riley

Tattoo Ducky identified by Dr Matt Lodder as by Tom Riley

Hidden tattoo treasure uncovered in national museum collection

21 December 2018

In the final weeks of an exhibition exploring the long history of tattoos, curators at The National Museum of the Royal Navy have uncovered their own incredibly rare piece of tattoo history within its collection and put it on display.

The museum based in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, is currently hosting the exhibition ‘Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed’ and curators rediscovered the object when searching through the archives for anything tattoo related.

The tattoo flash, mounted on the back of a piece of board, was identified by tattoo expert and co-curator of the exhibition, Dr Matt Lodder, as being created by one of the most popular British tattooists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tom Riley.

It was believed that none of Riley’s tattoo designs were thought to still survive, until now. Alice Roberts-Pratt Curator (Exhibitions) at The National Museum of the Royal Navy said: “It was a piece of board with what looked like various tattoo designs mounted on it, but we didn’t know anything more about them or where they had come from."

During a visit to the museum, co-curator of the exhibition and tattoo historian, Dr Matt Lodder, was shown the tattoo designs. He immediately reacted as though he had just won the lottery. Triggering this reaction was one of the pieces which had ‘1913 Tom Riley’ written on it.” Dr Matt Lodder, exhibition guest curator and lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex, said:

"It's absolutely remarkable to find a piece of art that is plausibly attributable to Tom Riley, as no other drawings by him are confirmed to exist, to the best of my knowledge. Tom Riley was one of the three most famous tattooists in Britain, and amongst the most famous in the world, at the end of the 19th century. It is certainly an extraordinarily rare holding for a British museum, as historically, public collections had paid very little interest in this most democratic of art forms."

“Original flash drawings such as this give us insights into both the working methods of early professional tattooist, and the tastes of their customers. The piece is a drawing based on an original by the famous ornithological artist Archibald Thorburn, who was a popular source of designs for late 19th century tattoo artists in London, and their customers -- many of whom were wealthy men from the countryside sports community. Riley advertised in magazines such as Sporting Times and Country Life, so it's absolutely fitting to discover such an appropriate design, that is so evocative of British tattooing before the First World War. The find also included a drawing by Australian taooist W.H.C Ryan, who worked in Liverpool and around other British seaports during the same period."

Tom Riley was one of the most popular British tattooists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rivalling other prominent artists of the era, Sutherland MacDonald and George Burchett. Riley learnt his trade whilst in the Army and after being discharged he took an art course in Leeds before setting up as a tattooist in Liverpool, Glasgow and then later in London as resident tattooist at the London Aquarium and his own studio at The Strand. He soon shot to fame, publicising his work in newspapers and magazines and regularly tattooing high society.

The rediscovered designs will remain on display until the exhibition closes on 6 January 2019. Entry to the exhibition is included in the Full Navy annual pass for the Historic Dockyard. Prices start from £31 with online discount. Or a special exhibition ticket is available from £8. Visit

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