A phallus that is also apparently a drinking-vessel is intrinsically shocking in that it seemingly invites us to participate in a scandalous and inappropriate activity; that is, to drink from that which should not be drunk from. It has genuine shock value (another object which uses exactly these conflicting emotions to similar effect is ‘Le déjeuner en fourrure’, the iconic Surrealist fur-covered teacup and saucer created by Méret Oppenheim in 1936). This drinking-vessel will certainly seem offensive to many onlookers; to others, it may seem comical, as when we are uncomfortable, we often laugh. What this object really does is to conflict us and make us feel ill-at-ease. It simultaneously attracts and repels; it is difficult for us to assimilate it into our social norms; our society has no acceptable ‘place’ for it.
The surprising, versatile and malleable properties of glass have long lent it a role in our imagination and celebrations, both public and private; extant Roman phallic glass vessels may have been for the private enjoyment of wine, or to be filled with offerings to the gods. By the time of the early modern era in this country, we have evidence of such vessels in the form of an 18th century phallic drinking-vessel which forms part of the collections of the former Wig Club (about which more later). The desire to make such vessels was certainly not confined to glass alone; we also have evidence of 19th century Staffordshire potters making similar drinking-vessels.
This particular vessel shows some characteristics of 19th century manufacture, particularly in the colour used, and the form of the short pedestal foot. We know that the 19th century glassmakers in Stourbridge and elsewhere delighted in making items that were intended to shock and amuse, and wore glass top hats and carried glass walking-sticks in their trade parades; although the nature of this object indicates a more private usage. This could well link it to the phenomenon of private and communal drinking-clubs and games, both well-documented features of 18th and 19th century life, particularly in the British Isles.
People of all classes frequented such clubs. Our modern sensibilities may be somewhat stretched by the concept that groups of men, or men and women, gathered together in clubs to participate in drinking and other seemingly salacious activities, as in our eyes, the past is often more ‘moral’ age than our own. However, this form of social interaction survives to this day, and its more ribald past is certainly well-documented. Clubs of all types and for all purposes existed, but have to some extent become grouped in the public imagination as ‘The Hell Fire Clubs’, a lumping-together of a highly disparate group and an attempt at condemning them as evil or satanic by way of their seemingly socially unacceptable behaviours.There was at least one ‘authentic’ Hell Fire Club, which met in London in 1720-21 and another, in Ireland; these were clubs which purportedly toasted Satan or performed sacrilegious rites; however we do not know the real truth of this as records have been generally destroyed and it may be that their true intention was simply to shock and scandalise.
While some clubs may have had quasi-religious aims, others certainly had a strongly sexual focus, as we know from documentary evidence the aforementioned Wig Club, a gambling club for gentry, who had as their mascot a wig supposedly woven of the pubic hair of all the Royal mistresses (sadly lost) as well as the aforementioned glass phallus drinking vessel for drinking-games; and of the Beggar’s Benison, a club for merchants and craftsmen, we know that, among other things, they measured and compared the quantity of each other’s semen, and had a phallus engraved on their drinking-glasses. Their records and collections of artefacts are both preserved at the Library of the University of St Andrews. These clubs celebrated sexuality, and used a variety of specially-commissioned vessels and dishes to do so, but did not have a religious focus (in order to justify being categorized as true ‘Hell Fire Clubs’).
The club most generally considered as the ‘Hell Fire Club’ and is most closely connected with the name, and which also was a club that blended religious ritual, sexual practices and the drinking of alcohol, is the club that was formed by Sir Francis Dashwood, which should be more properly known as ‘The Medmenham Friars’ or, ‘The Knights of St. Francis’. Sir Francis converted the ruined chapel at Medmenham on the Thames into a focus of quasi-religious sexual devotion, where they met when Parliament was in recess – conveniently as, many were MPs. We know that the members dressed as monks and that the female visitors as nuns, and that they repaired to monastic cells for their ‘devotions’. At Sir Francis’ home at West Wycombe he created a landscape that was part ritual occult temples and part 18th century landscaped garden; a temple of Venus surmounted a mound with an oval entrance supposedly representative of female genitalia, and there was also a network of caves with an underground meeting room.
This club is perhaps pre-eminent still in the public imagination because it was at the centre of a political scandal in 1763 when John Wilkes, then a member, sought to damage the political career of Francis Dashwood by bringing the membership of the club and its activities right into the public eye, and revealed the extent to which major political and socially eminent men, who although outwardly respectable, were implicated and linked in seemingly highly disreputable behaviour.
Today we do not know about every aspect of the club’s rituals, as the records were mostly destroyed when it was disbanded, although some peripheral documents and letters survive. However, the lovingly-created meeting places of the club can still be visited. This heady mix of sex and religion may seem highly controversial and possibly offensive, or even ridiculous, to us, but could in fact be explained in terms of the 18th century enlightenment in Britain, in which many people, of whatever social status, felt that the knowledge and exploration, of every type, should justifiably be explored, and social norms challenged.