Doctor Syntax & Bookseller
Doctor Syntax and the bookseller occupy the center of the piece. Syntax gestures demonstratively at his travel journal while the bookseller looks upward. To the left, the bookseller’s wife is seated in a parlor, grasping a decanter in one hand and a cup in the other, both of which are full of wine. To the right, a portly gentleman stands on a stepladder, fumbling with books on a shelf above his head. Further to the right, the bookseller’s assistant grasps a large book in his right arm and moves to shield himself from the two books about to fall on his head. Two published works are labeled in the piece. In the right foreground, a book is titled “Sermons by Bishop Blaze,” with the phrase “waste paper” scrawled beneath the author’s name. In the pocket of Doctor Syntax is a rolled-up paper labeled “PROSPECTUS.”
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 574
Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)
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Dr. Syntax & Bookseller was first published in the inaugural issue of Poetical Magazine (1809), along with the rest of William Combe’s poem, under the title “The Schoolmaster’s Tour.” It was later bound in book form (May, 1812).
Picturesque tourism as an industry was largely popularized by the publication of Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye in 1782. Tourists of the "picturesque" traveled to Scotland, North and South Wales, the Wye Valley, and the Lake District (in northwest England) in search of scenery manifesting this ideal. Oftentimes, tourists brought watercolors to quickly paint or sketch the scenes that most captivated them, in the fashion of Gilpin. These tourists, and their dogged pursuit of the picturesque, would later be lampooned by caricaturists in the early years of the 1800s, but picturesque tourism maintained significant popularity until the mid-nineteenth century.
The bookseller sneers at Syntax's “Tours,” informing him that “We can get Tours—don’t make wry faces—from those who never saw the places”; calls writing such a Tour “a fool’s errand"; and concludes by telling the Doctor that he “may throw [his] book into the fire . . . I would not buy it for waste-paper!” (Combe 206). These sentiments reflect the oversaturation of the market with picturesque tour guidebooks, as well as the prevalence of the same images in the public’s psyche.
William Combe (1742-1823)
The author of a wide variety of satires, as well as historical essays, letters, and even a few comedic plays, William Combe is best remembered for his series of satires featuring Doctor Syntax, of which The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque was the first. Combe primarily modeled Doctor Syntax on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and aimed to poke fun at Gilpin’s theories on the picturesque. The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque was so popular that it spawned two sequels and countless imitations, and was reprinted in several editions over the next century. This popularity suggests that the piece either influenced or reflected Romantic opinions regarding the picturesque and those who sought it (Carretta).
Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)
Born in 1757, Rowlandson spent most of the first forty years of his life drawing landscapes and townscapes, and traveling through Europe as time would allow. He was accepted into the Royal Academy in November 1772 based largely on the strength of his drawing. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rowlandson resisted the trend initiated by Sir Joshua Reynolds (president of the Academy) and did not pursue painting; a populist in taste, he gravitated towards caricature drawing in 1797 when he met Rudolph Ackermann. Proving successful in this genre, his caricature was “incisive,” but “avoid[ed] emotion and satire,” a blend that would lead to “his name [being] synonymous with the popular vision of late Georgian Britain” (Hayes).
William Gilpin (1724-1804)
Gilpin is known for his theories of the picturesque, developed in his books and sketches through the identification of scenes defined by their picturesque quality. The above caricature (drawn by Rowlandson) is a satire of the popularity of Gilpin’s picturesque theories, in which he "taught" viewers how to identify and enjoy pastoral and gothic scenes. In the caricature, itinerant Doctor Syntax becomes so enraptured while creating a sketch of the ruins that he accidentally falls into the river, comically toppling over backwards (Andrews, “Gilpin, William”).
This image depicts an exasperated bookseller initially refuses to publish Dr. Syntax's work. In creating this caricature, Thomas Rowlandson is not taking aim at picturesque tourists so much as he is mocking the picturesque tour-writer. As the popularity of picturesque tourism boomed, writers aimed to emulate the success of William Gilpin's Observations series by sketching their own picturesque scenes and expounding upon Gilpin's ideas. These travel journals eventually flooded the market for printed literature, frustrating readers and booksellers alike; this oversaturation is reflected by the bookseller’s dismissal of Syntax’s work. However, once Dr. Syntax reveals himself to be an “intellectual,” the bookseller quickly agrees to publish the work—Combe’s implication being that the guides written by “educated” persons were often as banal as their middle-class counterparts. The bookseller’s initial dismissal of the tour as being superfluous in an already-crowded field is reflected in his body language. His slouching posture, frustrated facial expression, and upturned eyes all indicate exasperation and disinterest. In the accompanying text he complains, "I've had enough of Tours and such-like flimsy stuff” (Combe 206). The bookseller, his wife, and the unidentified man on the ladder are comically overweight, likely serving as a visual reinforcement of the lavish lifestyle of those who profited from the booming market for literature and other printed media.
This piece is representative of many of the central issues definitive of the Romantic age: the dissemination of print, the crowded market for tours, and a developing frustration with the public's addiction to manifestations of the picturesque. The audience for written works was increasing as literacy rates climbed, and readers were initially intrigued by the picturesque and the concept of picturesque tourism (and even domestic tourism, an uncommon practice at the time); in particular, the picturesque as presented by Gilpin's Observations series was remarkably popular. In the wake of Gilpin’s success, however, came a flood of writers who wished to find similar acclaim. These writers’ written tours flooded the market, and most picturesque tourists brought journals with them to record the happenings and sketch the sights of their vacation. Eventually tours became mundane, and booksellers began to dismiss tour journals as superfluous in an already-overcrowded genre. Combe’s poem (which accompanies Rowlandson’s caricature) helped usher in the fad of poking fun at stereotypically oblivious picturesque tourists and their laughable habits. The idea of the “intellectual” individual is lampooned as well, since Dr. Syntax’s previously worthless tour is considered fit for publication the moment Syntax mentions that he is such an individual. Such subtle mockery of the upper classes and implicit praise of the common man was fairly typical of the Romantic era, as evidenced by the poetry of Wordsworth, and, to some extent, Blake.
Caricature was a relatively cheap form of entertainment during the early nineteenth century, and served to report on daily news as well as to provide entertainment by poking fun at fads and figures of the day.
Andrews, Malcom. “Gilpin, William (1724–1804).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2005. 20 Apr. 2009.
---. In Search of the Picturesque. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989. Print.
Carretta, Vincent. “Combe, William (1742–1823).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Jan. 2008. 3 Mar. 2009.
Combe, William. Doctor Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque: a Poem. London: Ackermann, 1812. Print.
Ford, John. “Ackermann, Rudolph (1764–1834).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Jan. 2006. 3 Mar. 2009.
Gilpin, William. Observations on the River Wye. 1782. Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1991. Print. Revolution and Romanticism, 1789-1834.
Hayes, John. “Rowlandson, Thomas (1757–1827).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Jan. 2008. 3 Mar. 2009.
Michasiw, Kim I. "Nine Revisionist Theses on the Picturesque." Representations 38 (1992): 76-100. Print.
Moir, Esther. The Discovery of Britain; The English Tourists. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1964. Print.
The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque. A Poem.
1 May 1812