What better way to celebrate summer than with a picnic? Today, around the world, it’s not unusual for families and friends to gather and eat outdoors at sporting or cultural events or simply as an excuse to enjoy good weather. But when and how did picnicking become such a popular pastime?


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A picnic by Loch Muick, 24 Aug 1863, Queen Alexandra, Royal Collection Trust

Eating al fresco is nothing new. Workers have always eaten outdoors when necessary, while aristocratic hunting parties were often preceded by elaborate feasts. The term itself originates from the French ‘pique-nique’, which first appears in Tony Willis’ Origines de la Langue Francaise of 1692, where it refers to people who bring their own wine when dining out. In later years the word became associated with outdoor dining, ‘pot-luck’ meals and group excursions, enjoyed primarily by the wealthy who had both time and money to spare. In The Physiology of Taste (1825), the French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described the delights of eating outdoors:

‘Seating themselves on the green sward, they eat while the corks fly and there is talk, laughter and merriment, and perfect freedom, for the universe is their drawing room, and the sun their lamp.’


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Picnic at Dharamsala, 1870, Major Forbes, Private Collection

Picnicking caught on in England and elsewhere in the 18th century and had its heyday in the Victorian era, when the outdoor gatherings were often large communal events. In 1861, when the journalist Mrs Beeton set out her rules for a good picnic in her famous Book of Household Management, she catered for 40 people. In some cases, picnics could be political as well as social events: the Art Institute of Chicago’s watercolour of an anti-slavery picnic at Weymouth Landing shows abolitionists gathering together.


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Anti-Slavery picnic at Weymouth Landing, 1845, Susan Torrey Merritt, Art Institute of Chicago

You can see that image and others of picnics all over the world in the gallery below. Some show people pausing to dine in some adventurous spots – on the edge of the Niagara Falls, on top of a mountain in the Alps, on a beach in Cornwall while the tide is out. Many are dining in style – one group by Lake Windermere is eating under a large makeshift awning while the Cornish party has brought tables, chairs, wine glasses and two chefs. But others are far more modest, quiet affairs. Richard Wingfield Stuart's painting from Australia, The bike picnic, Bedford, shows three friends who have thrown themselves down on a patch of grass to enjoy a rest after a bike ride. View of Castel Gandolfo by Myles Birket Foster depicts an Italian family resting on a hillside, the woman’s sleeping infant oblivious to the spectacular views.