Whilst carefully cleaning the contents of the Butler’s pantry, I came across a rather interesting object – Christopher Hussey’s picnic set. Inspired by this fascinating find, I decided to research the history of picnics in Britain, as I was curious to discover the origins of this summery excursion.
Twentieth century picnic set belonging to Christopher Hussey. Scotney Castle, ‘Hidden Collection’
Picnics are now widely regarded as being quintessentially British. However, the word ‘Picnic’ actually derives from the French word ‘pique-nique’, which although has Parisian roots is of unknown origin. Some historians believe the word was originally used to describe gourmands who brought their own wine when dining out. Interestingly, the term was not used to refer to a meal eaten outdoors until the mid-nineteenth century when ‘this linguistic adaptation was… embraced by the English and then the American, so that by the mid-nineteenth century the only picnic is an outdoor picnic. Even the reluctant French concurred’.
Christopher Hussey’s picnic set dates from the mid-twentieth century and is a bright shade of green. It contains plastic plates, mugs, a flask as well as room for cutlery – the essentials for a perfect day out in the countryside. Embossed on the front of the case is Christopher Hussey’s initials, ‘C.H’, perhaps indicating the importance with which picnicking was taken in the Hussey household. The set provides a quaint insight into the leisure activities of wealthy families, evoking images of a day spent in the country, eating pork pies and drinking tea out of portable teacups.
Front of Christopher Hussey’s picnic set, embossed with his initials ‘C.H’
Popular British programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, which sees contestants bake often-complex recipes in a countryside setting, has kept the nation’s interest in baked goods that we can neatly pack into wicker picnic baskets and enjoy outdoors. Not only does this encourage us to eat and enjoy food in the countryside, but makes picnicking seem characteristically British. Although the idea of eating outdoors was obviously not a new invention before the word ‘picnic’, the specialised nature of picnicking as a leisure activity was only truly cemented during the nineteenth century.
This leisure aspect towards picnics can be seen explored in numerous paintings, perhaps none more often than those found in the Victorian period. In particular, a famous painting by the French artist James Tissot entitled The Holyday or The Picnic (1876) depicts a picnic scene in the artist’s own garden by a circular pond. The relaxed pose of the gentleman stretched out on the blanket and the pot of tea being leisurely poured into a teacup makes this painting the embodiment of a typical British picnic. Other depictions such as Thomas Cole’s The Picnic (1860) and Claude Monet’s The Picnic (1865) helped solidify this sophisticated understanding of picnics as something to be enjoyed and revelled in.
What is particularly interesting about picnics is that they are not confined to the conventions of meal times such as breakfast, lunch or dinner, as they can be eaten at any time and at any place. In many ways they are the opposite of ‘timed’ meals, which are usually eaten indoors, since they are consumed outside and are generally regarded as a reward of leisure. Picnics are often a spontaneous action, a quick decision to pack up and head to the countryside for some fresh air.
Perhaps ironically, it was only until people migrated to urban areas and away from small villages that the picnic as we know it today really came into being. The need to escape the polluted air of Industrial cities and the long hours spent indoors unleashed a new attitude towards leisure. The mass-production of cars and gradual improvement of public transport enabled many to take mini breaks to the countryside at short notice. Picnics were gradually able to cross class boundaries and books such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management gave many the means to put it into action.
A close up of the inside of Christopher Hussey’s picnic set
Picnics are still popular today, with supermarkets creating ‘picnic ranges’ in stores during the summer months. Picnics have been enjoyed by many over the centuries, as it was able to cross class boundaries and formal dining conventions. It is interesting to see that picnics have not changed much since the Victorian period and are still a relaxed affair today. I love picnicking on a hot summer’s day and it is lovely to see that the Hussey family did too.
Anon. ‘The Great British Picnicking Tradition’, Forman & Field (2006-2011) http://www.formanandfield.com/notebook_perfect_picnics.html
Butler. S, ‘History in a Basket: It’s Picnic Time!’ Hungry History (2013) http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/history-in-a-basket-its-picnic-time
Levy. W, The Picnic: A History (Maryland, 2014)
Tissot. J, ‘Holyday’ (1876) Oil on canvas. Tate. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/tissot-holyday-n04413/text-catalogue-entry
 W. Levy, The Picnic: A History (Maryland, 2014) p.7
 S. Butler, ‘History in a Basket: It’s Picnic Time!’ Hungry History (2013) http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/history-in-a-basket-its-picnic-time
 W. Levy, The Picnic: A History (Maryland, 2014) p.5
 Anon. ‘The Great British Picnicking Tradition’, Forman & Field (2006-2011) http://www.formanandfield.com/notebook_perfect_picnics.html
 J. Tissot, ‘Holyday’ (1876) Oil on canvas. Tate. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/tissot-holyday-n04413/text-catalogue-entry
 W. Levy, The Picnic: A History (Maryland, 2014) p.8
 For recipes on Victorian picnicking see Mrs Isabelle Beeton’s, Book of Household Management (London, 1860)