Richard Doyle is one of the most well-loved of Victorian illustrators. Even those unfamiliar with the variety of his output would recognise Punch and his dog Toby, Doyle's creations for the magazine wherein he established his reputation and enjoyed a seven year tenure, before resigning in 1850 on a matter of principle. From 1851 onwards he devoted himself to book illustration and individual fantasy subjects, his work for Andrew Lang's In Fairy Land (1870) being regarded as his greatest achievement in this genre. However the two sides of Doyle's artistic persona - social satirist and prodigious dreamer - continued to inform and underpin each other throughout his career.
'Dickie' Doyle was the second son of John Doyle, the political cartoonist who signed himself 'HB' and introduced a note of waspish restraint to a form which had previously tended towards vulgarity. John Doyle was a rigid taskmaster; he encouraged his six children (including Charles Altamont - the father of Arthur Conan Doyle) to draw from memory, having sent them out to observe the sights and sounds of London.
Thus was cultivated in Richard an eye for both social mores and the human foibles that undermine them, and a technical ability to render busy scenes in minute detail. The illustrated records made for his father during 1840 were published posthumously as Dick Doyle's Journal, now at the British Museum: an early testament to the extraordinary mixture of observation and invention that characterises his work. For already Doyle told of being plagued at night by visions of fairies and goblins, and these profiliate his private journals - or 'Nonsense Books' - from thence onwards.
Doyle portrayed his fantasy figures in great number and this perhaps explains the dense grouping of human protagonists, such as those in The Picnic. All manner of incident is thereby encompassed and a sense of anarchy threatens even the most prestigious social occasion.
The Picnic is a fully worked figurative oil painting, rare for Doyle, whose experiments in this medium were mostly landscape. Undated, it does not appear to relate to a commission, but has as its possible antecedent a series of comic drawings published by Punch in 1849: 'The Manners and Customs of the English'. Herein Doyle portrayed in cartoon form various situations - the gentleman's club, the races, the London street, the annual Academy exhibition. Whatever class he observed, he was ruthless in his teasing out of the comic and ridiculous; rendering figures and buildings in a plain line technique which resembles woodcut in its bold simplicity. Later Doyle was to work in a similar vein on 'Bird's Eye Views of Society', a series commissioned for the Cornhill Magazine in 1864. These are more detailed, perhaps display a more jaded social eye, with the dishonourable and sometimes sinister meriting critique. 'Manners' tend, in general, to be more genial in flavour.
At first glance The Picnic appears to depict a propitious occasion. A group of well-dressed picnickers lounge on the grass, helping themselves to lavish portions of various victuals. However a minor panic has ensued, due to the arrival of two sprightly frogs, who advance upon the lady in blue. Many of her companions register the disturbance but a few remain oblivious, exhibiting a very Doyle-esque complacency.
Perhaps Doyle's image makes a political point. During the mid-part of the nineteenth century Francophobia was rife. Following Louis-Napoléon's election as first president of the Second Republic in 1848, and subsequent consolidation of political power in the coup-de-état of 1851, a substantial sector of the British public and press remained distrustful of his motives, suspecting invasion schemes. Coventry Patmore's poem, published in The Examiner in January 1852, articulated this paranoia:
'O where is he, the simple fool,
Who says that wars are over?
What bloody portent flashes there,
Across the straits of Dover?'
Despite his own more reasoned view of the situation, Palmerston was forced to allay public fears throughout the 1850s and 60s, though he himself supported the building of extensive fortifications along the British coast, and refused Louis Napoléon's offer to help quash the Indian sepoy revolt in May 1857 - thereby prolonging a messy colonial war.
Judging by the proximity of the precipitous coastline in Doyle's painting, and the sea which threatens to overreach its confines, The Picnic might be read as a comment upon this contemporary fear. The frogs could represent French intervention, especially as they comprise a witty twist on the more usual bull (who, with the sobriquet 'John' - becomes a wholly English animal).
The image is typically rich in symbolism, and presents an intriguing mystery.