“No one is too young or too old to delight in such a simple pleasure as a picnic in lovely surroundings and there is no more perfect way of spending a hot day,” wrote author and founder of the Culpeper herbalist stores Hilda Leyel, in her 1936 book Picnics for Motorists.
Her recipes for eating alfresco were, says Fortnum & Mason’s archivist Andrea Tanner, flavoursome and rich – typical of the elaborate picnic dishes of Edwardian Britain. Game pies, roast fowl, Russian salads and proper desserts were commonly ordered by wealthy picnickers from the Piccadilly store’s outdoor dining chef. The food would be ready for collection the next day, loaded into a huge wicker trunk that required several servants to carry it. The spread was frequently served on pieces from Fortnum’s vast collection of collapsible outdoor picnic furniture.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, says picnic-set aficionado and luggage designer Bill Amberg, that a new generation is attempting to recreate those glory days, when wicker, leather or crocodile-skin sets were packed with dinner and drinks services, even pop-up tables, and fitted onto the running boards or footrests of motorcars, the food, packed in straw, in an accompanying wicker trunk. “But it is hard to find a picnic set as characterful as a vintage one,” Amberg adds.
Toby Wilson, head of automobilia at Bonhams – which has sold vintage picnic sets by GW Scott & Sons, Drew & Sons and Louis Vuitton, among others, to collectors in the Middle East, Australia and North America – says that buyers tend to be “Anglophiles who have experienced the way the British like to picnic. They are usually car enthusiasts and want to travel in style. They understand it’s not where you’re going, but how you get there.”
According to Rachel Meddowes, a personal shopper with clients keen to acquire vintage picnic sets for Concours car events, yacht entertaining and as Christmas gifts, “Picnicking is becoming a gourmet experience again – it’s a tie-in to the slow food movement.”
Glamorous and very much in demand, these sets are increasing considerably in value. Wilson recently sold a brass and leather example with six settings, made by GW Scott c1910, at a Paris auction for €23,750 – a great deal more than its estimate. Inside was a wicker-handled kettle with burner, wicker-covered drinks bottles, bone-china teacups, butter and preserve jars and cutlery held in place with leather straps. Dealer Luciano Gulshan, of London Vintage Luggage, is finding that fitted sets by Asprey, Drew & Sons and John Bagshaw are fetching in excess of £5,000. If they are crocodile skin, contain hallmarked accessories, or are complete wicker sets by respected makers, so much the better (and, of course, costlier), says Gulshan, whose father owns a John Bagshaw silver and crocodile set worth an estimated £150,000. “The market is strong and growing,” agrees dealer Tim Bent, owner of Bentleys, which specialises in antique travel goods. “Picnic sets are proving to be excellent investments – values have doubled over the past 10 years. They are scarce and those with all the original fittings are the ones to look for.”
Bentleys recently sold an English set containing silver and china fittings in a crocodile-skin case for more than £20,000; its current stock includes a 1920s Drew & Sons six-person set for £8,500. Bent notes that corporate sales are now as frequent as personal ones: a set found in an antiques shop in Florence “that had been used on the original owner’s round-the-world honeymoon in the 1930s” went for about £12,000 – sold to an African game reserve for client lunches. Another was bought for about £3,500 by a pheasant shoot to use as a stylish tiffin holder. More still have entered into the archives of luggage makers as inspiration for future designs.
The rarity of such sets means they come to sale infrequently. MS Rau Antiques in New Orleans usually has a set or two annually. A recent model by Mappin & Webb that was made for a Rolls-Royce and included tea-making equipment and numerous dining accessories sold for over $20,000. And it currently has another stylish set designed for the famous auto marque for $14,850. Furthermore, Meddowes, who sources from Bentleys and SJ Phillips, warns that “complete sets can be very hard to find. You need to be patient.”
Dealer Tony Wraight, who has a 1920s GW Scott four-person example (price on request), will source extra sets just to find that vital missing piece. For his clients – usually vintage car collectors who “think nothing of spending several thousand pounds on a picnic set when their car has cost hundreds of thousands” – the appeal is in the craftsmanship. “There’s no one today who can produce the quality of work done in the 1920s – so every vintage picnic set that is sold now is usually a keeper.”
Wraight doesn’t deal in any post-second-world-war versions, but these can be more affordable entry-level purchases. (Although an attractive 1951 Festival of Britain set, made by Brexton and gifted by HA Fox & Co to Lady Sarah Churchill, was recently sold by MS Rau for almost $10,000.)
But the real thrill comes with taking these sets out on a sunny day. California-based lawyer Douglas Saunders fell for picnicking in style while a student in London, and believes in using his sets whenever possible. His collection includes two American fitted examples from the 1930s and a 1970s willow design that belonged to his parents. For him, “the details and ingenuity are pluses, but I am not sure that’s the appeal for me. The romance is in their aesthetics and the lifestyle they evoke.” Φ