This article discusses the history and traditions surrounding English standing cups and describes the style and design of the drinking vessels. It originally appeared in the February 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
With whom you share a cup, with him share your friendship — that is in brief the tradition of the standing-cup.
Raising a glass to honor a distinguished guest at dinner; the “Here’s how!” or similar salutation when two or three foregather on holidays; the now almost forgotten custom of passing round a quart pot of ale in the taproom of a wayside inn: each symbolizes the ancient ceremony of the standing-cup which is still observed at banquets in the halls of London City Livery Companies and colleges.
Far back along the ages it was the custom to pass a large cup round the company, each in turn drinking to one or more of the others present. The man who drank stood up and held the cup with both hands. By so doing he exposed himself to a dagger thrust. To protect him from treachery the man next to him also stood, to be his pledge or as we would say, be responsible for his safety, indicating his willingness to pledge the other by raising his sword to defend him while drinking. It is this custom that is observed in modified form at the passing of the ceremonial cup to the present time.
At important dinners held in the halls of Livery Companies, after the dinner and grace is said, the master and the wardens of the Company drink to their guests; then the cup is passed round the table, each guest drinking from the cup, wiping the rim with his napkin and passing it to his neighbor.
This form of observing the old custom, however, has not the romance of the more formal practice where the man holding the cup stands and bows to his neighbor while the pledger, also standing, removes the cover from the cup with his right hand and remains holding it as the other drinks. This may be regarded as repeating the ancient custom of keeping the right or dagger hand occupied and so preventing treachery toward the man drinking.
Various quaint customs connected with the standing-cup are to be found in old records. One describes the ceremony observed at Corporation dinners in Lichfield, England, where the two toasts — “The King” and “Weale and Worship” — are drunk from a massive silver cup holding upward of four quarts, which was given to the Corporation in 1666 by Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
According to this account, “The Mayor drinks first and, on his rising, the man on his right and the one on his left also rise. The Mayor then hands the cup to the one on his right when the one next to him rises, the man on the left of the Mayor still standing. Then the cup is passed across the table to him when his left hand neighbor rises; so that, there are always three standing at the same time.”
Another early reference speaks of the ceremony as it was observed at parish meetings and churchwardens dinners at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, London. Above the head of the person drinking at these events the cover of the cup was held by his neighbors on his right and left. Here, too, three men stood at the same time.
Whether it be the Anglo-Saxon drinking horns, the simple, mediaeval mazer bowls or the massive standing-cups of Tudor and Stuart times, each typifies the age-old importance of drinking vessels — and age-old it is, for the first Book of Kings records that “all Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold and all the vessels of the house of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver.”
In great houses, standing-cups were displayed on the cup horde; the more numerous and more magnificent the cups, the higher the social status of the master of the house. Incidentally, cup horde means literally a board or plank on which drinking cups are placed; actually it was a series of open shelves constructed in steps and from the name we have our word “cupboard.” The cupboard as we know it, however, is more closely connected with the early box-like chest which, stood on end and fitted with shelves enclosed by a door, was known as an ambry.
Few drinking horns have survived but enough have come down to us to show, in the splendid mounts with which they are ornamented, the skill of the 14th-century goldsmiths. One of the finest is the so-called wassail-horn, 25 inches long, at Queen’s College, Oxford, said to have been given by Robert Englesfield, founder of the College, who died in 1349. It is a buffalo horn with massive silver-gilt mounts and there is a similar horn at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, though the cover of the latter is missing.
Among early drinking vessels sought by collectors the simple mazer bowls are perhaps the rarest. These were the common cups from the 13th century to the days of the Tudors, those of poorer folk being a plain turned bowl while those of the more wealthy were ornamented with silver or silver-gilt mounts and enamel work (fig. 7), the finest sometimes being raised on a stem with an elaborate foot and fitted with a cover.
The name “mazer” has an unusual origin. The suggestion has been made that it is associated with the old word “maze,” to stupify or bemuse, the assumption being that indulgence in the contents induced mazing. Actually, the word refers to the wood of which the bowls are made rather than to the bowls themselves, for it derives from the Old German masar, meaning “a spot,” from which we also have the word “measles.” The wood for these bowls was generally maple selected from that part of the bole where a number of branches grew closely together, the part less likely to warp and which when turned gave the spotted effect often referred to as “bird’s eye” maple.
It is unfortunate but true that our high appreciation of early works of art finds expression in terms of money; but our keenness to acquire such works being so much greater than the opportunities to possess them, this form of appreciation seems unavoidable. It is a natural result that as searchers for early works increase in number, available examples gradually go out of circulation and the curve of values rises ever more steeply.
The sharpness of this rise becomes apparent when we select the prices paid for some of the mazers that have appeared in the present century. In 1902, one was sold for $850; in the following year, another for $700. By 1905, the widening interest in these bowls showed itself in a bid of $2,500; three years later, one known as the Tokerys mazer —with silver-gilt mounts of 1534 — brought the sum of $11,500, a figure which was exceeded in 1929 when the Saffrom Walden or Pepys mazer realized no less than $14,500.
While a large number of standing-cups, or hanaps as they are also called, are in the possession of various English corporations and colleges, many are owned by private collectors. Moreover, in quite recent years several important examples have found their way to the market. These often massive cups, when not in use, were at one time kept locked in a chest known as a hanaperium, a word later abbreviated to hanaper to denote a box in which valuable documents were kept. This box was often a wicker basket covered with leather and similar to those formerly used for holding clothes or samples when traveling — thus from “hanaper” we have the familiar word “hamper.”
It is probable that the earliest standing-cups referred to as hanaps had turned wood (mazer-like) bowls with covers. Later ones have bowls formed of silver or of a coconut or ostrich egg with silver mounts. Cups with coconut bowls (fig. 1) mounted in silver or silver-gilt and raised on a stem and foot seem to have been popular in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They were revived for a short period nearly three centuries later, and examples of the late 18th and early 19th centuries are sometimes met with. They are listed in old wills and inventories as note argento, blak nutte, etc., the earliest such mention being a cyphum de nuce Indye cum pede apparatu argente in a will of 1259.
Ostrich-egg cups are often referred to in early documents as “griffin egg.” The mounts are similar to those with the coconut bowls and, with authenticated English mounts, are equally rare. A particularly fine example appeared at the Swaythling sale, London, in 1924 and its rarity is reflected in the $27,500 paid for it (fig. 6). It is 18 1/2 inches high and the mounts bear the London hall-marks for 1623-4.
Any lengthy study of early standing-cups brings the discovery that the types and forms are so numerous as to make it by no means easy to recall all the many shapes and ornamental variations. In addition to those already remarked, howls were made of serpentine, crystal or ivory and there still exist examples with a nautilus-shell bowl surmounting handsome silverwork (fig. 9).
The earliest known surviving English standing-cup is the so-called King John Cup, dating from about 1350, belonging to the Corporation of King’s Lynn. According to legend it was given to that town by King John but the style of the cup and the costumes of the figures engraved on the panels point to its belonging, instead, to the period of Edward III (1327-77) who did not appear on the scene until two centuries after John of Magna Carta fame had passed to his fathers.
We could continue at length on the subject of English standing-cups in public collections but the private collector is more concerned with those that have appeared and may well appear again on the market. And though we purpose to restrict our reference to some that have been offered in the last 25 years, it is of interest to mention two which were sold from the Dunn-Gardner collection in 1902 — a sale which may be said to have established values for English silver at a level above any previously known. A James I standing-cup of 1604-5 brought $20,000, a figure which, some might suggest, was influenced by the fact that the cup, as the inscription has it, was made of the Greate Seale of Irelande in Anno Domini 1604, after the Deathe of the Blessed Queene Elizabethe, the Most Blessed Prince that ever Reigned. Yet no such influence could have been centrally involved in view of the high prices paid for other cups at that sale, such as $20,500 for a Tudor font-shaped cup.
Twenty-two years after the Dunn-Gardner sale, came the dispersal in 1924 of part of the Swaythling collection which included several great standing-cups. The prices then realized (doubtless considerably stimulated by commissions placed by Mr. William Randolph Hearst) exceeded both the expectations of the owners and those recorded at previous sales of English silver. Even so, the high prices paid at that time have since been surpassed. For example, let us refer to a set of three silver-gilt steeple cups bearing London hallmarks for 1611-12. When these were offered at the Swaythling sale they realized $22,500, yet six years later, $16,500 was paid for a single steeple cup hallmarked 1619-20, which is one of the many instances that might be quoted to illustrate the consistent rise in the values of fine standing-cups (fig. 5).
In the evolution of the shapes and ornamentation of these cups a marked change is noticeable in those of the early 16th century, by which time, in England, the former Gothic gave way to Renaissance forms. Traces of the mazer bowl remain in some of the bowls and something of the horn-shape in others but the dominant influence both in the shapes and in the elaborate decoration is derived from German and, to a lesser extent, Dutch goldsmith work.
These influences are more particularly noticeable in cups of the later Tudor period. One type of that time (fig. 2) shows an interesting adaptation in the style of the bowl: the main or middle part is cylindrical, with a slight taper in which it is possible to see a relic of the horn-shape, while in a bowl-like lip fixed to the upper part of the cylindrical section there is a distinct resemblance to the shallow mazer bowl. The cover is usually a low dome with a finial in the form of a figure holding a staff or spear in one hand and a shield in the other — a type of finial fairly common in later 16th-century cups.
One characteristic of this type of Tudor cup is a bold protruding member immediately below the cylindrical section; in some instances this is engraved, but as a general rule like the foot, stem and cover, it is boldly embossed with lion masks, fruit, foliage, flowers, strapwork and other ornament in a manner closely resembling that favored by the contemporary goldsmiths of Augsburg and Nuremberg.
Shapes of various large fruits were also adapted as bowls for cups, and a few in the form of a cantaloupe still survive. The majority, however, have bowls of the type known as gourd-shape and these were doubtless introduced from Germany. The gourd-shaped bowls bear a close resemblance to an inverted pear, but where the pear shape begins to taper it is constricted to a “waist,” so forming a large globular section at the top joined to a smaller globular section below. Most of these cups have a stem formed as part of a twisted tree trunk on a high foot (fig. 4), and while occasionally the bowl is plain, it is not unusual to find it engraved or embossed in the prevailing style.
At the end of the Tudor period the so-called steeple-cups were introduced (fig. 5) and remained popular throughout the reign of James I (1603-25). These derive their name from a high steeple-like finial copied from the steeples found in architecture of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The bowl with the cover suggests the shape of an egg, another characteristic being a plain baluster stem with three applied brackets and a high spreading foot.
As might be expected in view of the then enforced austerity, silver articles made in the time of Cromwell (1649-60) are few and far between, and any that do survive are very simple in character. The typical standing-cup of that time has a slightly tapering cylindrical bowl — devoid of decoration except for a wide band of matting — on a plain baluster stem and molded foot, the upper surface of which is usually matted (the term “matted” implies a dull surface produced by a tool). The cover which is flat or has a slight dome continues upward in a high cone-shape not unlike, but larger than, one of the extinguishers which accompanied the tray candlesticks, formerly found on the hall table to light one to bed.
This cone generally has a plain baluster finial, although one Cromwellian cup that appeared in the market some 15 years ago has a finial in the form of the figure holding a staff and shield mentioned above. This particular example which bore the London hallmarks for 1650-51 brought $6,000.
As the 17th century advanced, standing cups were made without covers. It is probable that the earlier cups were fitted with covers as some protection against poison, and, as this method of disposing of an enemy became less “fashionable,” covers were regarded as unnecessary. But even if society as a whole gained more sense of personal security, standing-cups when they lost their covers lost much of their imposing character — just as a mug or can lacks the dignity of a covered tankard.
Some few late Stuart standing-cups with covers do exist and they show very clearly the reaction against the enforced austerity of Cromwellian times. In place of the former simple outlines many cups dating after 1660 are extravagantly ornamented, indeed, often fantastic in design.
By the end of the 17th century, the great standing-cups were passing to give way to the less imposing yet attractive two handled cups which became fashionable after the Restoration in 1660. Of these and the various beakers and other individual wine cups we may treat in a future issue, for it may be interesting to recall how the shapes of many of them have come down through the centuries and reappeared in our modern table glass.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.