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The Parting Starts After Eight: a Stirrup Cup in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery

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In Charles Reade’s historic novel, The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), his character Gerard Brandt, an artist with ‘sensitive organs’ and a penchant for social blunders, is caught in a storm. He is tempted in to an inn by the prospect of shelter, warmth, and food – only to discover from the landlady that he is too late for dinner.

She points out that:

All the world knows ‘the Star of the Forest’ sups from six till eight. Come before six, ye sup well; come before eight, ye sup as pleases heaven; come after eight, ye get a clean bed, and a stirrup cup, or a horn of kine’s milk at the dawning.

But what I find interesting here is not the timings or social etiquette at ‘the Star of the Forest’; it’s the different types of drinking vessel referred to by the landlady. A drinking horn is fairly self-explanatory – but what on earth is a stirrup cup?

At its most basic, the term ‘stirrup cup’ refers to a small cup containing an alcoholic drink, usually offered to a horseman ‘in the stirrups’, before they ride away. More loosely, the term can be used to refer to a farewell drink. One of the earliest known references to a ‘stirrup cup’ can be found in the 1697 edition of George Meriton’s The Praise of York-shire Ale, wherein is enumerated several sorts of Drinks, with a Discription [sic] of the Humours of most sorts of Drunkards. Here, he describes how, before leaving for ‘famous Yorke’, a group of riders ‘wee’ l have with you a merry stirrup cupp’. The Victorian writer, William Tegg, argues that the origin of the stirrup cup lies further back than the seventeenth century. In his One hour’s reading: remarkable customs, seasons and holidays, epithets and phrases, &c, published in 1877, Tegg proposes that the custom of ‘the cordial stirrup cup’ dates back thousands of years, with its ‘origin in the poculum boni genii of the ancients’. Here libations were offered to the gods, for ‘the safety and prosperity of the host’, and one small last cup ‘was quaffed to one general “good night”’.

Because they were intended to be used for a small, quick drink by riders, stirrup cups are crafted for comfort and designed to be easy to hold. Most stirrup cups have a small capacity that allows the liquid to be drunk quickly and easily by a rider balancing on a horse. Early stirrup cups were essentially a wine glass without a base, with a simple, plain design. However, in the eighteenth century, stirrup cups of a more elaborate design were produced, for specific occasions such as a hunt. A number of these more elaborate stirrup cups can be found in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery here at the Royal Pavilion & Museums. One stirrup cup, currently on display, is in the shape of a fox’s head, suggesting a possible link to fox hunting and the aristocracy.

Other stirrup cups in our collections make reference to religious and political themes, such as this stirrup cup. When placed on its rim, it depicts the Pope in his Triple Crown, and when it is inverted it shows the Devil. Inside the rim of this stirrup cup is the phrase ‘the Devil smiles’. Created in the second half of the eighteenth century, this stirrup cup could be referring to the campaign for Catholic emancipation, or Catholic relief. These reforms aimed to reduce the restrictions on Roman Catholics enforced under British law such as the Act of Uniformity, Test Acts, and penal laws.

Stirrup Cup, c1790. Depicting the Pope with his triple crown (left) and inverted, showing the Devil (right).

But the shapes of stirrup cups – or stirrup bottles – in our collections here at the Royal Pavilion & Museums aren’t restricted to animals or people. They are also shaped like vegetables, specifically potatoes, such as this one, that again dates from the second half of the eighteenth century. It’s possible that stirrup cups shaped like potatoes are an economic statement, referring to the increase in potato farming in Europe, which helped to reduce the threat of recurrent famine to the agricultural classes. A potato-shaped stirrup cup could also make allusions to ideas of mystery, and mysteries revealed. After all, potatoes grow underground, and only reveal themselves once they have been dug up and cleaned. But could a stirrup cup in the shape of a potato make a more subtle political statement? Marie Antoinette is known to have worn purple potato blossoms in her hair – could a potato shaped stirrup cup suggest its owner sympathised with the French Cause?

Bottle modelled as a potato or yam, c. 1790.

Whatever the symbolic meaning of a stirrup cup shaped like a potato, by the mid-nineteenth century, the use of the stirrup cup was in rapid decline. William Tegg described how ‘this custom, which was continued for ages, was long religiously adhered to by our hospitable ancestors, until it was exploded by the cold refinement of modern manners’. Today, you are most likely to see a stirrup cup or stirrup bottle at a hunt meet – or in a museum. A number of the stirrup cups in our collections are on display under different themes in the Willett Gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, including another shaped like a potato. Can you find it?

Naomi Daw, Visitor Services Officer