The Tours of Dr Syntax (1809–1821)

The word “picturesque” has long been a rather vague way of describing a certain ramshackle beauty — in particular the beauty of a rural landscape, or a country house, or some other old structure gone to attractive ruin. But the word has its origins in late eighteenth-century Britain, where the artist, Anglican cleric, and schoolmaster William Gilpin (1724–1804) was its foremost promoter. While Gilpin was very skilled at describing a post-Enlightenment preference for “the rough, varied and irregular forms of nature” instead of the strict lines and right angles of the earlier eighteenth century, he was also very often ridiculous. In his Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales... Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1770), Gilpin famously suggested that some of the straighter and more regular “gabel-ends” of Tintern Abbey could benefit from some aesthetic alteration: “A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them”.

By 1809, when the artist Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) and the writer William Combe (1742–1823) co-created the character of Doctor Syntax, the concept of the picturesque was ripe for satire. Syntax, like Gilpin, is an artist, cleric, and schoolmaster who decides to make his fortune by traveling to quaint locales and then drawing and describing them for publication — a sort of aesthete Quixote who rides around on an old mare called Grizzle.

The first of the books, The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809–1812), follows the good doctor’s adventures about the countryside in search of the perfect scenery. Like many a traveler before and after him, he suffers his fair share of mishaps — falls in a lake, is pursued by a bull, loses all his money at the racetrack in York. The comic nature of these mishaps is clear enough in Rowlandson’s pictures, reinforced by Combe’s satirical verse:

Nature, dear Nature, is my goddess,
Whether arrayed in rustic bodice,
Or when the nicest touch of Art
Doth to her charms new charms impart:
But still I, somehow, love her best,
When she’s in ruder mantle drest:
I do not mean in shape grotesque,
But when she’s truly picturesque.

Two more books followed — The Second Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation (1820) and The Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife (1821). They were all hugely popular, above all in Britain (where figurines, prints, and fabric patterns of Dr Syntax can still be found in museums and antiques shops) but also in France, Germany, and Denmark, where translations of the books appeared.

William Combe, Combe, The Second Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, with illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson (London : Methuen, 1903).

William Combe, Combe, The Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife, with illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson (London : Methuen, 1903).

Combe’s verse is certainly entertaining, but Rowlandson’s art comes first in every sense: Combe wrote his poems to illustrate Rowlandson’s pictures, which are often cited as forerunners to the comic strips of later years such as Rodolphe Töpffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois (1837).

You can read all three Dr Syntax books above, in 1903 reprints of the seventh edition (originally published 1820–21), and included below a selection of Rowlandson's images from an 1813 edition of the first Tour (digitised by The British Library). And we've also one of the images (though in the form of a higher quality stand-alone print from 1812) available in our online shop.

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