Stories From the Stacks – Picnic Chic

A regular series about the museum’s motoring memorabilia and behind-the-scenes activities, compiled and written by FMM’s Assistant Curator Sian Theron. This month, Sian goes picnic chic…


Eating outdoors is not a new concept:  farmers, shepherds and labourers have long been taking a meal outdoors. Since pre-medieval times, nobility were also wont to stop to enjoy refreshments during hunting expeditions. Humans have been picnicking for centuries, long before there was an accepted term for the practice.

Picnicking has an interesting history. The name itself derives from the French ‘pique-nique’, a term used to describe a dinner party where all the attendees brought along a contribution to the meal, be it food, drink or money towards the fare. These were mostly gatherings of fashionable high society, usually indoor affairs with upper class attendees. It’s not sure as to exactly when, but it was in the 1800s that the term ‘picnic’ was adopted on the continent, and became the accepted expression for the taking of refreshments out of doors.

The term found popularity in English speaking circles during the French Revolution, when a number of French aristocrats fled to London during the late 1780s and 1790s, continuing in their normal way of life, eventually starting the Pic Nic Society in 1802. The Pic Nic Society held its functions in hired rooms in London, where participants would bring their share of the meal. Theatrical entertainment provided by non-professionals was commonplace at these meetings. These social affairs grew a reputation for being rather wild and excessive, which is a far cry from the tranquillity of picnics as we know them today.

The use of a basket for transportation of the fare has been routine ever since humans first learnt to weave baskets. A useful receptacle, baskets have remained a staple to this day, with modern wicker picnic baskets being a popular variant. But baskets are not limited to woven types, with suitcases and backpacks being used as well. Since the early-20th century, fully kitted picnic baskets have become the norm.

So what does this all have to do with motoring? With the advent of the bicycle and then the motor car, the countryside became much more accessible. From the early 1900s the picnic basket became a fashionable accessory for the avid motorist. Some marques even had custom picnic baskets and cases made specifically for motoring picnics, and the museum is a proud custodian of some of these vintage picnic kits.

The basket I am focusing on here is the crème de la crème of picnic ware. This basket was made by Coracle, who was at the forefront of luxury picnic basket production. It is circa-1920 and very much epitomises the opulence of the age. Although referred to as a picnic basket, this particular item comprises a beautiful leather suitcase.

Its contents include a six-person set that comprises porcelain crockery, silver cutlery and glassware. There are silver food containers, salt, pepper and sugar containers, and even a jam pot. My favourite part of the set is the copper kettle that comes with its own kerosene heater so that a fresh brew can be cooked up on a whim.

It is very easy to imagine a tranquil summer days picnic out in the countryside with such a beautiful set. So we thought, why just imagine it? Being located on such a beautiful estate and with a plethora of spectacular era-specific vehicles to choose from, we decided to make the dream a reality and provide the picnic set the perfect conveyance and setting to showcase its beauty. And what better way to indulge in a luxury picnic than with a Rolls-Royce?

The museum’s 1915 Silver Ghost was pressed into service to provide a suitable period-specific ‘equipage’ and we very carefully transported the picnic basket to the gardens at the Anthonij Rupert Wyne tasting rooms and set up in a lovely spot under the trees, complete with the fabulous ARW high tea spreads. And with such a scenic combination, we decided that appropriate clothing was a necessity, and got dressed up in as close to period friendly attire as we could find.

The museum has two further picnic sets. One is more of a blue collar workers lunch hamper, made by Sirram circa 1910, being a very simple but undoubtedly still a beautiful set that harks back to vintage quality. The other is an Edwardian era picnic basket, also circa 1900-1910. This one is very much the quintessential wicker picnic basket, and it is stunning. Like its larger counterpart that we did the photoshoot with, this set also comes with many accoutrements including a sturdy little kettle and burner for making fresh piping hot tea. The little saucer napkins are particularly touching. These two smaller sets will soon be on display in Hall A, with the larger set due to make an appearance in the first quarter of 2023.