Culture Magazine

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
As I am typing this, I am aware of the irony that I am about to tell you all about picnics whilst it is raining hard.  Actual proper sky water (as my daughter used to call it) is falling rather torrentially, but up to today it has been blisteringly hot.  So hot in fact that the Walker family have been partaking of occasional picnics in the actual outside countryside type scenarios.  Not only that, BBC2 are currently showing a new version of Picnic At Hanging Rock and all that got me thinking about Victorian imagery of picnics...

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

Bunch of doomed lasses in white?  Sounds like a party to me...

 So, currently on the telly we are enjoying a remake of the 1975 film (itself from the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay) of Picnic at Hanging Rock, starring Natalie Dormer (who has to be in everything now, by law).  They have managed to spread it over six episodes which concerns me because the whole point of the story is that it is unknowable and mysterious, and that's a hard ask when you have to fill 6 hours of not finding a load of wandering teens who have disappeared into adulthood, or something. 

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

Same picnic but in 1975

I'm a great lover of the 1975 film, not least because it stars Mrs Mangle from Neighbours, but because of it's sheer vibratingly-hot-stifling-sexuality-in-constricting-frocks vibe.  It's a wonderfully understated exploration of teenage girls and the trouble with growing up.  I have high hopes for the tv series but we shall see.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

At the Hanging Rock, Mount Macedon (1875) William Ford

As you probably all known, Lindsay took the title of her novel from a Victorian painting of lovely gentlefolk having a charming time in the Australian countryside around Hanging Rock, or Mount Diogenes as it is also known.  Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, is not exactly the sort of chap you'd want your teenage daughter to hang around with (and he certainly wouldn't like it himself) which is maybe the point.  If I have a criticism of the tv series so far, there has been a disturbing lack of scotch eggs and wasps, the corner stones of a decent picnic in my view.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

Apple Blossoms (1859) J E Millais

Anyway, moving on to a Pre-Raphaelite picnic, this is probably the most familiar.  Our young ladies are all gathered in an orchard enjoying something from a massive bowl, possibly milk.  Our girl in gray seems to be happy to be in charge and is handing out the little bowls, which are being filled by the girl at the back.  I am left wondering what the point of the middle bowl is and how on earth it got there?  I wonder if that is bothering the girl with the white sleeves, center back, who seems perturbed as she watches the others.  The girl in yellow who is flat out on the ground is bothering her friend next to her.  You know she's about to say 'get up Ethel or you feet are going to end up in the milk.  Again.' We all know a sort like Ethel who has to be the center of attention by rolling around on the floor eating grass.  Who invited Ethel?!

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

The Derby Day (1856-8) William Powell Frith

No, hang on, that's far too massive.  Let me just get the bit we need...
Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

That's better.  The problem with The Derby Day is that it's far too big.  That's not a criticism of the actual painting which is fine and you can walk back and forth seeing all the bits, but try and look at it in a book or on a screen and you are stuffed.  Anyway, as you will remember, there is an acrobat sort of in the middle, all dressed in white and holding out his arms to his child (presumably it's his, I'm not asking too many questions).  That acrobatic child is too busy staring longingly at the picnic being set out by a toff and what a splendid picnic it is too!  A massive pie and a lobster.  Those are some picnic goals to which we all need to aspire.  I have a theory that all the women in the coaches nearby are looking at Big Picnic Man because there is nothing that women love more is a man with a massive pie.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

The Party Picnic (1875) Albert Ludovici

It seems to be that picnics are perfect places to attract the opposite sex.  This has never been my experience but then it is entirely possible that I have never picnic-ed in the correct manner with the right people.  In the above party, I count one more man than woman which could get ugly at the end of the day, especially as two of the women have the arm of a gentleman and Miss Stripey-Skirt is eying up the chap behind her.  I suspect the man in the dark blazer is going home alone, unless he has a massive pie in his bag, but frankly that bag does not look big enough.  Unless, of course, he fancies going home with the chap carrying the red thing, then stripey-skirt is out of luck.  The man in the middle has brazenly taken his hat off, so I suspect this afternoon is going to get messy.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

The Picnic (1904) James Charles

The British Impressionist painter James Charles brings us a charming and far more innocent afternoon, complete with a proper blanket, a dog and even a swing rigged up in the tree.  I'm guessing they went to the spot specifically because the swing was there rather than taking the rope with them and shinning up the tree.  I'd be really impressed if those girls did set up the swing themselves but the aprons suggest rather less exciting past times.  Again, they have chosen an orchard to picnic in - what is about women and orchards?  Is it the apples?  Is it all a bit Biblical?  It has both shade and eternal damnation, with a promise of a Jaffa Cake for afters.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

Fair Quiet and Sweet Rest (1872) Luke Fildes

There is always someone who brings a musical instrument to a picnic and everyone has to do singing or else, even worse, suffer the singing of someone who believes they have an aptitude for it.  Lawks, even the swans look a bit dubious and the ever-so-confident songstress here has made the cardinal error of standing up in a boat, the attention-seeking hussy.  Her friend is surreptitiously getting a life jacket ready with her feet in case it all goes horribly wrong, whilst her boyfriend, oblivious to everything, tucks into the picnic. We all know it will end in tragedy, with Algernon shouting 'Save my lute!' whilst his girlfriend goes under for the last time, probably still singing and there will probably be some sort of memorial to the dangers of going on jaunts with idiots.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

Midday Rest (1878) Robert Cree Crawford

The best picnics are those impromptu ones you have with chums, possibly during the working week.  It's a nice day and you have been gleaning (or some other Victorian thing), so what pleasanter thing to do than crash out for an hour and scoff a pasty behind a haystack. There you can talk about your hopes, your dreams, the future - getting married, getting the vote, getting a pair of shoes that haven't been worn by your fifteen siblings before you.  Mind you, that sky looks like it's on the turn and I fear their relaxation will be short-lived.  That corn won't gather itself, ladies...

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

An Interrupted Picnic (1901) Charles Sims

Yes, this more likely sums up an English picnic.  If it's not wasps or ants that are ruining it, then it will rain.  The extremely aggressive clouds that are obscuring the sky in Sims painting above pretty much sum it up - just as the blanket hits the ground, the heavens open.  It's like some sort of rain charm.  Some sort of waterproof gazebo would have been handy and practical but no.  Now all the Mr Kipling cakes will get ruined. Oh, the humanity.

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

A Summer Afternoon (1948-9) Geoffrey Scowcroft Fletcher

Finally then, remember to make your picnic as deeply symbolic as possible.  This odd painting from after the Second World War seems to reference so many Victorian paintings, such as the double rainbow of The Blind Girl, or the sad girl thinking of her lost love in Byam Shaw's The Boer War, there is much that is both familiar and mysterious in this image.  Who are the other people in the field?  Why are some of our people looking at them so intently?  Why is the girl with the dog so sad? Why is everyone Victorian?  It's not a happy image and there is something that holds our group of people separate from the others.  Are they all dead? Oh look, we're back at the beginning, with strange and unexplained picnic occurrences, so I will leave you with these words of advice: Take plenty of food, take plenty of sun cream and never, ever wear white because even if you don't disappear down a hugely symbolic crack in a rock you will get absolutely filthy. 
Also, if anyone brings their lute, make your excuses and leave.  That sort of thing never ends well...

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