Who doesn’t love a summer picnic? Here, in London, as soon as the sun begins to shine, it seems that every public green space, regardless of size, is pressed into service as a picnicking venue. Outdoor dining, in various forms, grew in popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, alongside the fashion for day excursions to picturesque spots, landscape gardens and historic sites.
The picnic, or pique-nique has its origins in 18th century France, describing an indoor, male-only gathering, where invited guests contributed food and drink. As French nationals fled revolutionary France for England, picnics, in their indoor format, and often including an amateur theatrical performance, started to become popular in London.
Another French term for a shared meal, which took place outdoors in a rural setting, was Le Repas Champêtre. This gathering was open to women and children, as well as men. In Le Repas Champêtre / Costumes de Lucerne (1820s), by the Swiss artist, Gabriel Lory le fils, a group of agricultural workers in traditional dress share a meal under a tree on the edge of a hayfield, surrounded by their rakes. It’s likely the women are also working, perhaps taking it in turns to look after a baby and toddler under the shade of a large tree.
It was this atmosphere of idealised rural simplicity that wealthier classes wished to re-create, although their version of Le Repas Champêtre was activity of leisure, rather than a daily necessity. An English print entitled The Anglers Repast (1789), shows a well-dressed group setting up their outdoor meal helped by a black servant, who is unloading their boat and passing a bottle of wine to one of the guests. The use of the word ‘repast’ suggests a modest meal appropriate for a working fisherman, but the presence of a servant, the group’s clothes and the household chairs transported for the comfort of the female guests all indicate this fishing excursion is entirely for pleasure.
From the early 19th century the term picnic started to be used more broadly in England to include outdoor gatherings where food was consumed. The historian Alexander Lee records several examples of picnics in books for children, the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and most famously in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) which describes the fractious picnic outing to Box Hill, Surrey.
An impressive double page illustration from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) provides a glimpse of a picnic excursion to Prospect Hill, at the Longleat Estate in Wiltshire. Two women are seated on the ground on what looks to be a white tablecloth, which one of the servants is arranging for them, while their two male companions survey the scene. The second servant is unpacking a basket containing wine and other paraphernalia for their enjoyment including a parasol.
Repton is clearly approving of excursions like these, applauding the Marquis of Bath for his generosity in welcoming visitors to his estate:
‘This magnificent Park, so far from being kept locked up to exclude mankind from partaking of its scenery, is always open, and parties are permitted to bring their refreshments; which circumstance tends to enliven the scene, to extend a more general knowledge of its beauties to strangers, and to mark the liberality of its Noble Proprietor, in thus deigning to participate with others the good he enjoys.’
The popularity of country seats with their grand gardens as picnicking spots is revealed in prints showing gatherings at Stourhead, also in Wiltshire, Forde Abbey in Dorset and at Leeds Castle in Kent. Sheltered by a bank, shaded by a tree, or close to open water, the participants look relaxed in their idyllic surroundings.
Images of picnics influenced by The Romantic Movement have their own particular character. Their focus on wild places, and the appreciation of nature is apparent, showing mixed groups of men and women enjoying the mountains of the Lake District and the coast of Cornwall. These participants seem more self–reliant, transporting their own refreshments and equipment, without the help of servants, to a viewpoint from which to appreciate the spectacular scenery.
In Derwent Water, Cumberland (1849) by George Baxter (1804 – 1867) it’s not difficult to imagine William and Dorothy Wordsworth at a gathering like this with their circle of literary friends – which was doubtless what Baxter had in mind when he produced this souvenir of Cumberland, a destination popularised by Wordsworth’s poetry and cultural commentaries. The group’s lively conversation is significant, hinting at the importance to the Romantic Movement of group excursions like these as an opportunity to exchange ideas, as well as to appreciate the views.
Baxter was a pioneer of colour printing, and his system involved a key plate, over which a sequence of separate colours were added in a specific order. Although his patented process was successful and popular, his business was never profitable. This print also appeared as an illustration in the books Loitering among the Lakes and the Scripture Pocket Book. (As part of researching this subject, I’ve realised we have Baxter’s charming print, bought at auction in Cumbria as part of a larger lot, and presently residing in our spare room – now with greater honour, knowing the British Museum has one in their collection.)
Whatever kind of picnic you enjoy, I hope these images will tempt you on your own excursion this summer. While fashions come and go, the appeal of the picnic is unchanging.
Most of these prints are from the British Museum’s online collection – links below:
The British Museum Collection online here
Alexander Lee’s History of the Picnic in History Today here
Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening here
George Baxter, engraver and printer, Wikipedia here