Thursday, September 6, 2012

Drinking on Horseback, with a Satyr: c 1760

Thursday, September 6, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

Drinking alcohol and drinking alcohol in an amusing way seem to have always gone together. Why just drink when instead you can add to the general pleasure with a drinking song, or drinking game, or a special drinking vessel?

This ceramic satyr's head, left, is a Georgian stirrup cup. Stirrup cups were the original to-go cup: a last dram to be handed up to a departing rider already in the saddle with boots in the stirrups. While there are some early connections to Scottish traditions of hospitality, most historians link stirrup cups to the rise of pack-hunting in England.

As the members of the hunt gathered on their horses, stirrup cups became part of the final send-off, a final gulped bit of fortification. In the18th and 19th centuries, when a manly gentleman was expected to be able to hold his liquor, it's likely that many hunters had already had had a substantial amount of fortifying with their breakfasts. (I'm afraid I'll always think of Squire Western in Tom Jones, roaring drunk and barely hanging onto his horse as he races off after the fox.) The mood was doubtless jovial by the time the stirrup cups were handed up, which probably explains why the cups themselves are often jovial, too, shaped like the heads of foxes, hounds, and stags.

And then there's this fellow, believed to represent a grinning satyr. Satyrs were mythical classical creatures associated with Bacchus and excessive drinking and carousing, as any classically-educated 18th c. gentleman would have known. It's easy to imagine the raucous laughter that must have accompanied this particular stirrup cup's appearance.

This cup is part of a fantastic exhibition currently on display at Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, DE. Uncorked! is dedicated to exploring the incredible range of historical wine-related objects (another exhibit is this punch bowl, decorated with a scene of Vauxhall Gardens) and traditions. The show runs through January 6, 2013; here's more information. Can't make it to the exhibition? Winterthur has generously put everything on line here.

Above: Satyr head stirrup cup, Staffordshire, England, 1760-90. Earthenware (creamware) From the collection of Winterthur Museum. Photography by Susan Holloway Scott.


Debbie Watley said...

Did the men hold and drink out of their cups as they were riding? Could you imagine a cupholder on the saddles? :)

I'm thinking a canteen would be less messy.

My husband and I recently saw a motorcycle with a cupholder. We wondered what would happen if the cup came loose going 65 mph.

Debbie Watley

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The stirrup cups aren't very big - not much larger than a modern shot glass. I think the point was to knock it back in one gulp while the servant waited to take the cup back. They weren't meant for leisurely sipping - which is why none of them have a base or bottom. So as intriguing as a saddle-cup-holder might be, one wasn't necessary. :)

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