The art of the great British picnic
There is nothing like laying out a blanket for a long and languorous lunch on a warm summer’s day. Gregory Holyoake looks into the tradition and Katy Birchall asks leading chefs to reveal their perfect picnic
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do’: thus begins one of the best-loved classics of children’s literature, the story first told by the Rev charles Dodgson (lewis carroll) on a rowing expedition along the River Thames one sultry summer’s day in July 1862. The party comprised Dodgson, who rowed bow, the Rev Robinson Duckworth, rowing stroke, and the three liddell sisters—lorina, Alice and edith—daughters of the Dean of christ church, Oxford.
The friends had travelled three miles upriver from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to the hamlet of Godstow and Dodgson began improvising the story over the shoulders of his companions in their hired gig, continuing under the shade of hayricks by the riverside. ‘We had tea on the bank there,’ he confided in his diary, ‘on which occasion i told them the fairytale of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”.’
Alice, later Mrs Hargreaves, remembered vividly that ‘blazing afternoon with the heat haze shimmering over the meadows’. Alas, meteorological observations for the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, confirm the day was actually overcast with rain in the early afternoon. No matter, to the friends present, their recollection was that it was a ‘golden afternoon’.
Tea by the river, lunch on the lawn: any mention of past picnics, whether in the country or at the seaside, invariably conjures up images of warm summer sunshine. in reality, however, instances of eating out of doors for necessity rather than pleasure have rarely been recorded.
izaak Walton describes a scant meal in his celebration of fishing The Compleat Angler, when interlocutors—piscator, a tutor, and Venator, his pupil—steal a breakfast beside the River lea, consisting of ‘a piece of powdered beef and one or two radishes’. The pair consumes it greedily in the hour before dawn, one of the most promising moments of the day for fishermen.
Samuel Pepys, chief Secretary to the Navy, liked to travel by barge down river with his friends towards Gravesend to view ships of the Royal Navy anchored along the Thames estuary, where they participated in a shared meal that might have included Kentish cherries, cheesecake and neat’s [beef] tongue accompanied by a quantity of ale.
The word ‘picnic’, denoting a social event in which diners contribute towards a shared meal, may derive from the French piquenique—pique meaning to pick or chose and nique referring to trivia. in 1801, col Henry Greville invited his friends to a theatrical performance, but, to lessen the expense, he proposed that his guests should send ahead an appetising dish. Plates were ticketed and lots drawn to decide who should be served a random dish for this innovative ‘pic-nic’
supper. Thus, the word entered the English language, although it was slow to acquire the modern meaning of a meal taken purely for pleasure out of doors.
William and Dorothy Wordsworth were keen partakers of rustic meals when they explored the mountain scenery of their beloved Lake District. The siblings were inveterate picnickers—whether in scorching summers or bitter winters—at which they might be joined by literary friends Sir Walter Scott or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dorothy’s letter to a friend in 1808 mentions a picnic for 19 people on Grasmere Island, disrupted by a thunderstorm. She was herself puzzled by reference to the word picnic, as it was then quite new.
By the mid 19th century, picnics were firmly established. Queen Victoria, when in residence at Balmoral, frequently rode a pony, escorted by her manservant John Brown, to join Prince Albert for lunch in the remote hills. The Prince Consort would take a break from deer stalking and relax with his ghillies in one of the wayside encampments. Her Majesty painstakingly recorded details of these remote excursions in her notebook, Journal of Our Life in
the Highlands. Picnic over, Victoria would
sketch the breathtaking scenery; ‘so wild, so solitary’.
In Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household
Management, first published in 1861, London journalist Isabella Beeton—the undisputed authority on Victorian catering—recommended a bill of fare for a picnic for 40 persons aimed at the average middle-class hostess. Her suggested menu comprised ‘a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head’ and her choice of pudding for
a summer’s day, surprisingly, included ‘1 large Christmas pudding’, which, she insisted, ‘must be good’.
Both D. H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh feature blissful picnics in two of their bestknown novels. In Women in Love, sisters Gudrun and Ursula swim in the nude, dance themselves dry and relish aromatic tea, cucumber and caviar sandwiches and cakes.
Brideshead Revisited sees Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte drive to the Wiltshire countryside in a borrowed two-seater MorrisCowley to enjoy strawberries and wine on ‘a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms’. The social etiquette of a picnic is skilfully used in Jane Austen’s Emma to give a chastening lesson to her eponymous heroine.
The evolution of the English picnic is also reflected in the paintings of the Old Masters. Zoffany’s Mr and Mrs David Garrick Taking Tea (1762) presents the actor-manager partaking of this expensive beverage on his manicured Thameside lawn with all the trappings of indoor comfort, including a tea table and armchair, in evidence. Morland’s The Anglers’ Repast (1790) depicts an elegant fishing party about to indulge in a meal in a leafy, riverside glade. A young gallant reclines on the grass to carve a chicken and the ladies take their seats on chairs, ready to dine from silver plates.
A true picnic, which is eaten on the ground, is encapsulated in Tissot’s Holyday (1876), popularly known as The Picnic. The setting is the late-autumn garden of the artist’s London home at 17, Grove End Road, St John’s Wood. Elegant figures are warmly wrapped as they relax beneath a withered chestnut, the yellowing leaves of which frame the canvas. Focus is upon the lady pouring tea for a young man lounging and a second lady, the artist’s mistress Kathleen Newton, averts her gaze. A couple disports among the cast-iron colonnade of the circular lily pond and an elderly chaperone dozes.
The centrepiece is a plain tablecloth spread for a sparse meal composed of sliced cold meats, a choice walnut or fruit cake and purple and white grapes. A tea tray holds a silver kettle and a Chinese blue-and-white cube teapot has, ominously, a serpent handle. At the time, this charming painting was dismissed by Oscar Wilde for its ‘painfully accurate representation of modern soda water bottles’.
The advent of the automobile at the turn of the century saw department stores selling luxury motor, river, luncheon and tea baskets, equipped with bone china and silver cutlery and filled with dainty delicacies. Later, familyowned motor cars encouraged trips to the countryside, with a well-stocked hamper lodged in the luggage rack.
Our own Royal Family loves to host informal meals out of doors. Whenever the Queen Mother stayed at Birkhall in Aberdeenshire, she relished salmon-fishing expeditions on the River Dee, accompanied by picnics, regardless of high wind or deep snow, taken at the schoolroom by Glen Gairn or the lodge at Loch Callater. Generous fare included game or chicken pie, cold lamb cutlets and baked potatoes wrapped in foil.
Indeed, Princess Margaret’s wedding gift to her sister Princess Elizabeth, when she married The Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, was a luxury picnic hamper for two, complete with spirit burner and square teapot. The Queen apparently made good use of it on summer holidays in Scotland and informal photographs from the early 1960s reveal the royal couple with their children, lounging on tartan rugs surrounded by corgis, after a picnic on the lawn of Balmoral Castle.
Last summer, The Queen hosted a grand picnic in St James’s Park to celebrate her patronage of 600 charities and organisations on her 90th birthday. Thousands of invited guests enjoyed a classic lunch from picnic hampers at tables positioned all along The Mall and, although the day itself was damp and drizzly, picknickers donned plastic macs and ponchos to ensure they, too, would have personal memories of a truly golden afternoon.
‘Our own Royal Family loves to host informal meals out of doors
Having a picnic in the sun has long been romanticised in paintings and literature, but the prevalence of ants is often overlooked
Golden afternoons: Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) in the 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited