Who is Doctor Syntax?

On May 1, 1810, the first canto of a comic poem called The Schoolmaster’s Tour appeared in Rudolph Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine, accompanied by a series of aquatint prints. This poem featured a schoolmaster and clergyman who decided to make his fortune by taking a picturesque tour and publishing his account:

I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it everywhere.
I’ll do what all have done before;
I think I shall–and somewhat more.
At Doctor Pompous give a look;
He made his fortune by a book.

Canto One

Thus, Doctor Syntax was born. In 1812, The Schoolmaster’s Tour was published as a book and rechristened Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, the first in three official Syntax tours. The humor and absurdity of Doctor Syntax’s tours represents the saturation of picturesque culture and the travel cult in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. In twenty-six cantos, Doctor Syntax would fall prey to bandits, be chased up a tree by a cow, fall into a lake, argue with “boobies” including his landlady and a bookseller, and sketch after the manner of Gilpin.

“Your sport, my Lord, I cannot take,
For I must go and hunt a lake;
And while you chace the flying deer,
I must fly off to Windermere,
‘Stead of hallooing to a fox,
I must catch echoes from the rocks;
With curious eye and active scent,
I on the picturesque am bent;
This is my game, I must pursue it,
And make it where I cannot view it.”

Canto Thirteen

The model for Doctor Syntax was William Gilpin, although it would play upon other prominent figures and critics of the time. Gilpin’s ideas about traveling and sketching were ripe for satire. Gilpin advocated not for the exact representation of a scene within art but for the altering (or “improving”) of a landscape to make it more picturesque in the drawing or sketch. This would become a favorite point for Doctor Syntax to mock, as he makes a “landscape of a post.” Doctor Syntax would also satirize the industry of travel literature. His primary purpose in writing a travel book was to make money, enough money that they could “put our [horse] Grizzle to a chair.”

The Tours were originally the invention of caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, who was already well-known for his prints and cartoons. Rowlandson approached Ackermann, a well-known print seller who had already published Rowlandson’s Microcosm of London, with his initial ideas, and Ackermann, in turn, contacted William Combe, a prolific if hackish writer who had produced hundreds of articles and dozens of books. There may have been a fourth contributor, John Bannister, who gives this account of Doctor Syntax’s creation:

Dining at a tavern, with him and a third person, Rowlandson was asked, “What are you about. Roily ?”— ” Why, nothing in particular,” he said ; ” I think my inventive faculty has been very sluggish of late; I wish one of you would give me a hint.”

Being asked of what kind? he answered, “I feel in a humour to sketch a series, where the object may be made ridiculous without much thinking. I have been making a tour in Cornwall and Devonshire with a friend, who, as I have made sketches on the coast for him, wishes me to introduce adventures at inns, and other comic incidents, in which he was the principal party. But what can I do for such a hero? A walking turtle, — a gentleman weighing four-and-twenty stone, — for such scenes be is quite out of the question. I want one of a totally different description;” and he named a celebrated tourist, who, by a recent publication, had given much celebrity to the Lakes.

“I have it !” said Bannister: “you must fancy a skin-and-bone hero, a pedantic old prig, in a shovel-hat, with a pony, sketching tools, and rattletraps, and place him in such scrapes as travelers frequently meet with, — hedge ale-houses, second and third-rate inns, thieves, gibbets, mad bulls, and the like.” ” Come !” he proceeded, warming with the subject ; “give us a sheet of paper, and we’ll strike off a few hints.” The paper was produced. Bannister gave his ideas, Rowlandson adopted them, Coombes explained them by a well-written poem ; and to this conversation, and to the lively invention of Bannister, the public is indebted for a highly favoured publication, “The Tour of Dr. Syntax.”1

Bannister’s actual role in the invention is uncertain, but his account demonstrates how Rowlandson sought to create a figure that parodied the fashion for the picturesque and travel literature. While Doctor Syntax’s Tours parodied the picturesque, they also emulated it. Many of Combe’s poems follow not only the picturesque formula as outlined by Gilpin but imitate the same poems that would appeared alongside the original serialization in the Poetical Magazine, particularly in the use of rhyming couplets, personification of nature, and neoclassical allusions.

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.

Canto XIV

Doctor Syntax would soon become fixed within the British imagination, as a spindly, crooked-nose parody of both the picturesque and travel literature. After In Search of the Picturesque would follow In Search of Consolation (1820) and In Search of a Wife (1821), as well as a number of unofficial Syntax adventures from other writers and artists. Doctor Syntax would grace dinner plates, dolls, and porcelain models; “there were Syntax hats, Syntax wigs, and Syntax coats.”1 Editions of Doctor Syntax’s Tours continued to be published up through the early twentieth century, although it now seems to have lapsed into obscurity.

  1. John Bannister. Memoirs of John Bannister, Comedian. London: Richard Bentley, 1839, p. 290-1
  2. John Camden Hotten. “The Life and Adventures of the Author of ‘Doctor Syntax”, in Doctor Syntax’s Three Tours in Search of the Picturesque, of Consolation, and of a Wife. London: Chatto and Windus, 1884, p. xxvii