Article by Lindsay Rose-McLean

HE EARLIEST RECORD OF HUNTING as a recreational activity in Britain appears in AD 43 after the Romans introduced the brown hare and new species of deer as quarry. With the victory of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans ushered in new breeds of hound dogs, and successfully established hunting as a royal pastime. Foxes, which were previously chased down only by farmers for the purpose of pest control, were added to the list of acceptable prey when medieval laws on hunting were formalized in 1340. Thereafter, the fox, along with the red deer (stag) and roe, were collectively referred to as “beasts of the chase.” A Norfolk farmer is known to have attempted a fox hunt with trained dogs in 1534, but England’s oldest official fox hunt is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, established in 1668.

The sport continued to grow in popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and in 1753 the 18-year-old North Leicestershire aristocrat Hugo Meynell, often cited as the father of modern fox hunting, began to breed hunting dogs specifically for quickness and stamina. The speed of his pack not only allowed for a more exciting and extended hunt, but it meant also that the hunt could commence later in the morning—a trait that made it immensely popular among his peers, for whom late nights were de rigueur. With the patronage of the upper classes, fox hunting evolved into a highly sophisticated pursuit regulated by standardized rules and prescribed traditions. While already known in Continental Europe, particularly Germany, fox hunting continued to grow as a sport in the UK and spread to North America and abroad.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century made possible the mass production of wares that both facilitated and celebrated the fox hunt as a favourite pastime among the social elite. Everything from china patterns to children’s toys was decorated with scenes of the hunt and the ever-popular “tallyho” (a phrase shouted during the hunt to excite the dogs when setting off, or when quarry is spotted).

Just as the practice of the fox hunt itself evolved out of ancient and Anglo-Saxon origins, so too did the use of the stirrup cup as a vessel associated with the hunt. Its earliest predecessor was the drinking horn—an animal (typically bovine) horn often embellished with precious metals and stones and used in ceremonial practices. Drinking vessels made out of glass, clay, or metal styled in the shape of drinking horns—conical with a wide mouth tapering to a point—were referred to as “rhytons” and often moulded and/or decorated to resemble the heads of animals. The ceremonial association of the vessel gradually evolved into the custom of sharing a drink with a guest upon arrival or departure by offering them a libation while still on horseback—quite literally, with their feet in the stirrups.

The Scottish derivation of the stirrup cup was the “dram cup” or “tot cup,” a small, two-inch, silver-handled bowl with feet at the bottom that was handed up to the rider in a custom known as the “dochan dorius” (from the Scottish-Gaelic for “drink at the door”). Early 18th-century English examples were reminiscent of footless crystal wine goblets, which later evolved to sterling silver animal heads in imitation of the ancient rhyton. Common to both styles was a shape that could not be set down, but was instead handed up to a rider by a servant who presented the vessels on specially crafted serving trays with cut-outs to accommodate the footless cups. Both the style and the materials testify to the ritual and decadence of the aristocratic sport.

Although sterling silver stirrup cups, usually created in pairs and formed as the fox and the hound, remained the most sought-after and prestigious variety in use by the most elite connoisseurs, the advent of the 19th century saw less expensive varieties manu­factured out of earthenware and soft-paste porcelain. Prolific factories included Ralph Wood, Rockingham, Chelsea, Derby, and Coalport. The fox and the hound remained the most common subjects but other examples included rabbit, fish, and deer—all targets for the ambitious sportsman. While some early examples have a monochrome cream glaze, most are naturalistically painted in polychrome overglaze that lends the animals a life-like quality. Particularly rare examples, such as some early Wedgwood pieces, feature a two-tone effect of cream and brown glaze in imitation of banded agate. The hare reproduced here dates to 1750-60 and is a product of a period when Josiah Wedgwood I partnered with Thomas Whieldon, the most respected and influential potter of the day who pioneered the “tortoiseshell” glaze technique. Whieldon wares are highly sought after. More common on the current open market are the standard Staffordshire varieties. However, owing to the precariousness of their use, the associated inebriation, and the inherent fragility of the materials, examples in good condition can be hard to find.

Other defining features of the stirrup cup include a banded rim, painted to resemble either the collar of an animal, or left as a blank space for engraved mottoes of the hunt, such as “Tallyho” or “Angler’s Delight.” Late 19th- and early 20th-century examples reflect the celebratory nature of imbibing and the revelry following a successful hunt by incorporating bacchanalian motifs, either by directly depicting Bacchus or satyrs, or by cheekily adding grape and leaf motifs to the existing animal forms. All of these features are represented in the wonderful array of animal-head stirrup cups found in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum.

The traditional fox hunt, in which a pack of trained dogs tracks and kills the fox, is controversial and officially outlawed in Scotland, England, and Wales. In North America, the “hunt” long ago evolved into a “chase” whereby the fox is pursued, but not killed. As a sport steeped in tradition and formality and deeply ingrained in rural life, variations that minimize cruelty continue in practice throughout the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Traditional accoutrements remain in use as well. Modern stirrup cups are typically fashioned of silver plate or pewter for added durability and affordability. As the tradition demands that the contents be ties have also decreased the size of the cup to resemble more of a jigger or shot glass. The stirrup cup continues to evolve in form and material, but raising a glass remains a tradition throughout the ages.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Lindsay Rose-McLean is a graduate of the University of Toronto Museum Studies program and is a decorative arts appraiser and contributing editor to Ornamentum.

J.N. Sartorius (1755-1828) The Stirrup Cup, 1784 Private collection, Toronto