Cup case and lid
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
Moulded leather (cuir bouilli)
- Credit Line:
Bequeathed by George Salting
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval and Renaissance, room 10a, case 2 
The high value of personal possessions such as books, documents or knives encouraged the use of protective cases which could be carried on a belt for convenience. These were moulded and stitched in leather, and were close-fitting and light-weight. They are exceptionally durable, and have often outlasted the contents. Integral loops allowed the lids to be secured with a cord or thong. Such cases are sometimes depicted in 15th-century paintings and manuscript illuminations. They could be intricately decorated with fashionable ornament, personalised inscriptions and colour.
Judging by the size and shape of this case, and the inscription BOIRE A TOUS ('Drink to all'), this case was for a drinking cup, which at this date could have been made of glass. Since travellers in the Middle Ages usually carried their own eating utensils, there were a number of leather cases moulded to fit the shapes of cups, knives, forks, or spoons, which would protect the objects while they were being carried on a journey. On the underside of the case, the face of a man has been drawn in the leather using a sharp knife. Its a wonderfully vivid reminder of the skill of its maker, and perhaps the character of the cup's original owner.
Circular case for a cup, of cut and embossed leather (cuir bouilli). On the cover are the words BOIRE A TOUS. There are six loops for a cord. The ornament consists of floral scrollwork in two compartments. The cover is decorated on the top with a rosette surrounded by a band of leafy scrolls, amid which is the inscription in Gothic characters; round the edge are two panels also filled with floral scrolls. On the bottom is a male head wearing a hat, deftly cut with a few, expressive strokes.
With a pasted label [red printed numerals] '1987'. The case and lid each formed from 2 parts of leather of several thicknesses stitched together.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Moulded leather (cuir bouilli)
Marks and inscriptions
BOIRE A TOUS
Height: 6.7 cm, Diameter: 9 cm, Weight: 0.08 kg
Object history note
Notes by William Thorpe, 1957.
COVERED CASE FOR A DRINKING CUP. Sewn and wrought leather. Container consisting of two layers, the inner layer including the thrust[?], the outer layer wrought decoratively. Cap consisting of one layer wrought decoratively. No lining. Brown colour of thrust [?] probably representing the original colour of the exterior, now sable.
Straight sided, nearly cylindrical, container, and corresponding close-fitting flat-topped cap. On the container, two pairs of eyes, and on the cap one pair, for a thong long wanting.
Decoration in slight, smooth, relief, against a stippled ground. On the containers paired panels of leafed scroll work in a symmetrical arrangement, with corresponding panels on the sides of the cap. On the top of the cap, a central rosette surrounded by a border of leafy scroll work, incorposing in Gothic letter the words BOIRE followed by ATOUS. On the base an unpermited drawing, with trial strokes near, in incised line, of the head of a bald man (probably a monk), apparently drawn before complete cooling of the leather.
George Salting and leather
Only one reference to leather was found among Salting’s (incomplete) papers at the Guildhall Library. It is possible that he bought most of his leather from auction sales (the papers for which have not all been checked, 12/2006)
George Donaldson, 106 New Bond St, IMPORTER OF HIGH CLASS WORKS OF ART
8 July 1895 ‘£40 asked’
“Cuir-bouilli” case for book (Italian) A leather box (Castellani Coln) £21 ‘fetched £48 at that sale’
It is possible that his interest in leather began, like his interest in renaissance furniture begins during 1884 (after the Spitzer sale, 1883 at which he was said to have spent £35,000, and the Fountaine sale, 1884).
Historical context note
The Secular Spirit (Exhibition catalogue, New York, Metropolitan Museum 1975)
Since travellers in the Middle Ages usually carried their own eating utensils, there were a number of leather cases moulded to fit the shapes of cups, knives, forks, or spoons, which would protect the objects while they were being carried on a journey. As such objects were often made of costly materials, their value alone warranted the making of cases for them, often with rich decoration. Lavishly tooled and painted cases made for the imperial crown and ceremonial sword of the Holy Roman Empire have survived, while others less ornately adorned and identifiable by their shapes as cases for a variety of eating utensils and drinking vessels are not uncommon.
At this early date, the type of beaker held in this case could have been glass.
For early glass beakers see D.Foy & G Sennequier, a travers le verre du moyen age a la renaissance, Nancy 1989; E. Baumgartner & I. Krueger, Phoenix aus Sand und Asche: Glas des Mittelalters, Muenchen 1988
Notes on the manufacture of medieval leather containers:
Waterer (and following him, Cherry) summarise the medieval techniques for making leather containers for dry-goods:
Stitching is the most common technique, with holes made in leather by awls. Thread is made from flax or hemp yarn rolled with beeswax. The other principal assembly technique is sticking to a wooden structure. The traditional adhesive for box covering is hot animal glue, which was often created as a by-product of the fleshings taken by the tanner from the skins or hides.
Leather objects can also be created by moulding. The traditional medieval term was cuir bouilli, though Waterer suggests that boiling could not have been used. The technique is quite simple, and consists of soaking the (vegetable-tanned) leather in cold water until it is thoroughly saturated. The leather is then very plastic and can be modelled over formers in moulds of plaster, wood or metal. If the surface is to be ornamented by tooling, stamping or punching, this must be done while the leather is damp.The leather is then dried gradually (to avoid brittleness), supported by its mould or filling which can be removed later.
The most common processes of decorating smooth-surfaced leather are:
Incising with blunt or sharp tools
Punching to give a texture to the background of incised designs, using a variety of small iron or bronze punches (also used in book binding).
Modelling, to leave important features in low relief
Embossing, performed with a ball tool from the flesh side of leather that has been previously dampened.
Carving, which is done from the grain side with a special knife that can be inserted more orless horizontally and partially raises up a thin layer until the form appears to lie on the surface
Finally the object is decorated with coloured dyes, usually with some paint (tempera). Red seems a common colour (little work on medieval dyes). Some leather was gilded using glaire (white of an egg) or gold size to attach gold leaf which adhered under the heat and pressure of book-binding tools.
However, Davies argues that the multiple techniques of cuir bouilli have never actually been very clearly established. Cuir bouilli differs from other supported leathers in that after treatment it is rigid (without a support) and water resistant, indicating that the structure of the leather has been altered through a chemical reaction. Otherwise leather would remain flexible unless coated with a stiffening medium or mounted on a backing material. She suggests that all true cuir bouilli was made by taking vegetable-tanned leather and saturating it with water, then heating it to a temperature just before it starts to shrink, removing it from the hot water and moulding it immediately, and if necessary stitching it while wet. In this way the molecular bonding of the leather is weakened but not fully released allowing limited realignment of its molecular structure to take place in a more controlled manner. Alternatively, if the heat source application is limited to only the surface of the wet leather then it is possible that the shrinkage solely occurs in the outer layer of the leather, producing a surface hardening effect and reinforcing the structure. She speculates that by impregnating oils, resins and waxes, it may be possible to mould the structure of the leather when hot, and to produce more detailed surface decoration because otherwise this decoration would be distorted by shrinkage after tooling.
English medieval Industries (ed John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, London) 'Leather' chapter 12 by John Cherry, pp. 295-318
Conservation of Leather and related materials (ed. Marion Kite and Roy Thomson, 2006), 'Cuir Bouilli' chapter 10 by Laura Davies, pp. 94-102
Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, ed. Harold Osborne (Oxford, rev.ed. 1985) 'Leathercraft' entry by John W. Waterer
Cup case and lid, of cut and embossed leather (cuir bouilli)
Personal accessories; Drinking; Transport; Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance; Leather
Furniture and Woodwork Collection