There have been many outdoor uses for blankets over the years, from the car blankets to keep passengers warm in the early days of motoring (and the Mexican blankets that hot-rodders used as a way to cover up worn upholstery) to Billie Jo Spears’s Blanket on the Ground, where said covering performed a very different sort of function.
But the most recognised use for a blanket alfresco has to be for a picnic, where it serves as a portable tablecloth for those occasions when you haven’t got a table.
Blankets pre-date picnics by quite a few centuries, with a reference to what we might call one found in the 7th century, care of Chinese scholar and traveller Xuanzang, who talks of the kambala, a type of woollen blanket, in his Indian travelogue.
The name may come from the French “blanc” for “white”, applied to a fabric as far back as 1278, and the first use of “blanket” as a verb meaning to cover goes to William Shakespeare (in King Lear). A nice theory is that the name actually comes from a Flemish weaver, one Thomas Blanket (Blanquette), who in the 14th century lived in England, in Bristol.
Whatever its etymology, it’s clear that blankets were a thing way before picnicking discovered them. In the Middle Ages, there was the practice of eating a meal during a hunt, and the 18th-century painting Hunting Picnic by François Lemoyne shows this sort of scene with the food on a white cloth on the ground. Some dictionaries claim the French pique-nique comes from piquer, to “pick” or “peck”, with “nique” meaning a “trifle” (not the pudding, but some little unimportant thing). Pique-nique occurs first in 1649 in a French burlesque verse. The English “picnic” comes into use for dining outdoors at the start of the 19th century.
The French have Monet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1865-66), where fashionable gents and ladies are gathered round an out-of-doors meal on a white cloth in a wooded environment (a response to Manet’s painting of the same title, which caused a scandal when first shown in 1863, as the ladies he depicted are decidedly less clothed than their male counterparts; Manet’s image, interestingly, appears to show a blanket-less picnic).
But the Brits have Thomas Cole’s A Pic-Nic Party of 1846, where the bucolic setting definitely has, to quote Billie Jo Spears, a blanket on the ground. Then there are the two picnics in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), while The Wind in the Willows (1908) opens with one on the riverbank. And we mustn’t forget Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, which gives us the quote ‘There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.’
Indeed, picnics have become a summer staple in Britain. In 1802, more than a couple of hundred aristocratic francophile Londoners even founded the Pic Nic Society. They seem to have entertained indoors, however, as their aim was to stage theatrical amusements, gamble and consume sumptuous meals comprised of dishes provided by the members, with no kitchen on hand.
But outdoor picnics are the norm these days, whether during the interval at the opera at Glyndebourne or in your local park. And three of our favourite blankets for this summer, which will do service in the bedroom or thrown over a chilly lap in a vintage car too, of course, are by Joshua Ellis (a great utility blanket in Modern Blue Blackwatch tartan in New Zealand lambswool), Birley (a reversible colourful check lambswool blanket designed by Jennifer Shorto and made in Scotland) and Connolly (a lightweight and soft striking black and white blanket made in Scotland – the CB blanket in lambswool and cashmere, featuring the house logo).
So, if you want to join those famous teddy bears, then simply pack your provisions and get down to the woods today. With a blanket, of course.
By Peter Howarth, editorial director of Secret Trips. You can follow him on Instagram at @petershowmedia