Doctor Syntax with My Lord
Dr. Syntax visits the home of a Lord for dinner. Seated in large chairs around a large circular table are three other men, one of which is Sir John as the accompanying text names. They are all well dressed in breeches and white wigs. Dr. Syntax holds an empty wineglass while each of the men have theirs in front of them; the large man in the center fills his glass with a third decanter. On the table are two decanters of wine and several plates, possibly of fruit and of nuts. To Dr. Syntax’s left, a man sits with his back to the viewer with his foot next to a large urn containing five bottles. A well dressed servant walks into the room carrying a large bowl. Paintings cover the walls from floor to ceiling. On the left a dog sits in front of a fire; the marble mantle is decorated with small, standing figurines and hanging medals and miniatures. On the right stands an empty arm chair next to two large books, a bust, and small paintings which lean against a pediment on which another bust and two small statues stand.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque. A Poem
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Plate 14 in The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque. A Poem. (London 1812)
William Combe (1741-1823): English writer of prose and satirical verse. After traveling the Continent and falling into debt, Combe returned to London in 1777 and took up writing as a profession. Friends with Laurence Sterne, Combe published several volumes of imitations of their and Sterne’s Yorick correspondences. His collaboration with Ackerman commenced with illustrated histories such as Westminster Abbey (1812). This led to a collaboration with Thomas Rowlandson on the Doctor Syntax series, in which he satirizes popular sentimental travel and tour writing, The English Dance of Death (1815), and The Dance of Life (1816-17).
Royal octavo, monthly parts in Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine under title The Schoolmaster’s Tour (1809-11)
Reworked and renewed in The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812) in royal octavo
The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation (1820)
The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of a Wife (1821)
Le Don Quichotte Romantique, ou Voyage du Docteur Syntax . . . with engravings rendered by Malapeau and lithography by G. Engelman (Paris: M. Gandais 1821)
Des Doktor Syntax Reise (Berlin 1822) with lithography by F.E. Rademacher
Life of Napoleon, by Doctor Syntax with 30 engravings by George Cruickshank (London 1815)
The Tour of Doctor Syntax through London, or The Pleasures and Miseries of the Metropolis (London: J. Johnson 1820)
Doctor Syntax in Paris, or A Tour in Search of the Grotesque (London: W. Wright 1820)
Dr. Syntax is invited to dine in the private gallery of a Lord. With paintings hung all over the walls, from floor to ceiling, the room is very reminiscent of the Great Hall of the Exhibition. The Lord invites Dr. Syntax to dinner in order to discuss his collection. However, Dr. Syntax is more concerned with relishing the meal and, becoming inebreiated, he reveals himself to be an errant spectator as well as an ersatz art connoisseur.
Dr. Syntax was first introduced to the British public in 1809 in The Schoolmaster’s Tour, which appeared in Randolph Ackerman’s Poetical Magazine, a monthly targeted to the patrons of his “Repository of Arts” (J. Grego, Rowlandson 38). In this venture, Thomas Rowlandson created a caricature that was sent to William Combe (then in debtor’s prison at Kings’ Bench) who would then compose lines that addressed and would accompany the print (B. Falk, TR 156). The tour culminated in the fourth volume with the picturesque tour. Given its great success, the plates were reworked and renewed to appear in the 1812 The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque with thirty-one illustrations. This work was met with even greater success so that several editions were published within one season (J. Grego, Rowlandson 39). Taking advantage of Dr. Syntax’s immense popularity, a series of sequels were published, resulting in a trio of tours. So popular was Dr. Syntax in romantic culture that there was a plethora of Dr. Syntax merchandise, from hats and coats to wigs (B. Falk, TR 157).
In this work, Dr. Syntax is invited to dine at a Lord’s “splendid pile” and to view his private art collection (W. Combe, Tour 99). From the moment that he is greeted at the door, there is a marked difference in class and taste between host and guest:
My Lord receiv’d him with the graceDr. Syntax, the humble visitor, is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the estate; however, he is welcomed by the Lord who “was birth from folly free,— / Here was the true nobility, / Where human kindness gilds the crest;— / The first of virtues, and the best” (W. Combe, Tour 100). The Lord’s character is described in terms of the art of heraldry; his crest is gilded not by pretentious show but instead by “human kindness.” Thus, in the person of the Lord, the aristocracy is associated with a particularly artistic virtue, which translates into good taste as well as proper breeding. The Lord’s taste in art is refined and extensive, as shown in his private collection which includes paintings, sculpture, and medallions. Dr. Syntax then is first introduced to the Lord as a connoisseur who in turn treats him as not an untitled commoner but a fellow connoisseur.
Which marks the sovereign of the place; Nor was Syntax made to feel
The pride of which fools will oft reveal
Who think it a fine state decorum,
When humble merit stands before.
(W. Combe, Tour 99-100)
However, the Lord is in for a surprise at dinner when Dr. Syntax privileges the experience of dining over the conversation about art. The dinner is served in the Lord’s private gallery where Dr. Syntax, the Lord, and other aristocrats dine amidst paintings and art objects. With every inch of the walls covered with paintings, the room recalls the Great Hall of the Royal Academy Exhibitions. However, the grandeur and the quantity of art cannot distract Dr. Syntax from his dinner. The Lord waits for dinner to be served before asking Dr. Syntax his opinion of “the show / Of pictures that around you glow?” (W. Combe, Tour 100) The Lord not only wishes to display his collection but also his knowledge and position as a connoisseur, wishing to “judge, by certain rules, / The Flemish and Italian schools; / And nicely describe the merits / Or beauties of which each school inherits” (W. Combe, Tour 101). Implied in this is that his collection is a particularly fine one containing Old Masters. However, despite the Lord’s prodding, Dr. Syntax prefers to eat and drink before he examines the pictures to the point of protesting that “The finest works are on the table” (W. Combe, Tour 101). He prefers to concentrate his attention on dinner, which though appropriate given the circumstances seems entirely inappropriate given the location. When dinner is finally over and Dr. Syntax is ready to examine the Lord’s collection, he finds himself drunk and seeing double; his ability to view and criticize art is impaired by his appetite. In this episode, Dr. Syntax fails to take advantage of the invitation to not only view but also to discuss the private collection of a connoisseur aristocrat, thus revealing himself to be an errant spectator as well as a ersatz art connoisseur.
Combe, William. The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: Ackermann, 1812.
Carretta, Vincent. “Combe , William (1742–1823)” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Sept 2004. Online, Jan 2008. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6022]
Falk, Bernard. Thomas Rowlandson: His Life and Art, a Documentary Record. London: Hutchinson, 1949.
Grego, Joseph. Rowlandson the Caricaturist: A Selection from His Words, with Anecdotal Descriptions of his Famous Caricatures and a Sketch of his Life, Times, and Contemporaries. London: Chatto and Windus, 1880.
Paulson, Ronald. Rowlandson: A New Interpretation. London: Studio Vista, 1972.
Pyne, W.H. and William Combe. Microcosm of London, or London in Miniature. 3 vols. London: R. Ackermann, 1904.
Savory, Jerold J. Thomas Rowlandson’s Doctor Syntax Drawings: An Introduction and Guide for Collectors. London: Cygnus Arts, 1997.
The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque. A Poem (London 1812) plate 14 by William Combe
1 May 1812