Romantic Circles Gallery
Doctor Syntax Sketching the Lake
Dr. Syntax sits on his horse at the center of the engraving, holding an open sketchbook and pen; an open umbrella appears to be tucked under his arm. A local fisherman and his dog stand behind him; before Syntax, on the water, a man rows three tourists in a boat, two of them women. Dark clouds roll in the sky above the tourists, presenting a stark contrast to the gentle sunset taking place beyond the distant mountains. The left third of the engraving is significantly darker due to the rapidly-approaching storm. Interestingly, Syntax sketches with his right hand in this engraving, while he uses his left in Dr. Syntax Tumbling into the Water.
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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Doctor Syntax Sketching the Lake was first published in the inaugural issue of Poetical Magazine (1809), along with the rest of 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.
Tour of the Lakes
Starting in the 1770s, the Lake District of England quickly became a favorite haunt of tourists in search of the picturesque; at its height, the tour of the Lake District rivaled the Grand Tour of continental Europe in popularity (Andrews, In Search of the Picturesque 153). The District, which featured forests, rugged hills and mountains, cascading waterfalls, and pastoral country dwellers, fulfilled the requirements of the picturesque in the most obvious ways, but the sensory bombardment did not stop at sight. Unlike the Wye Tour and several other picturesque tours, tours of the Lakes often featured the din of cannons, providing an auditory experience of the sublime for tourists. Eventually, those who lived in the Lake District became frustrated and exasperated at the noise, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the picturesque tourists who came in ever-greater numbers (Andrews, In Search of the Picturesque 153). Gilpin’s account of the picturesque qualities of the region can be found in his Observations on several parts of England: particularly, the mountains and lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772.
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).
The Lake District
Located in northwest England, the Lake District comprises several lakes (also called “meres”), as well as forested hills and mountains. The Lake District held a significant appeal for the Romantic age—aside from the picturesque tour one could take of the Lakes, the District was also the home of such notable poets as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt. The contrast of the massive mountains and thundering waterfalls with the smooth lakes and quiet hills greatly appealed to Romantic visual appetites. Consequently, the Lake District is one of Doctor Syntax’s destinations in William Combe’s The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque.
Doctor Syntax Sketching the Lake demonstrates the narrow-minded and obsessive folly of the seeker of the picturesque. Doctor Syntax, as well as the tourists in the boat beyond him, ignore the advice of locals regarding the coming storm, hoping "that we the picturesque may find / In thunder loud or whistling wind" (Combe 111).
Caricature. Tour to the Lakes. Doctor Syntax.
In this caricature, Rowlandson again takes aim at the oblivious picturesque tourist. Rather than seeking shelter from the rain as the fisherman advises him, Syntax stubbornly awaits the storm, replying that he hopes “we the picturesque may find / In thunder loud or whistling wind” (Combe 111). Syntax's obstinacy will cause trouble for him as he attempts to navigate his horse through the mud, but the Doctor is so obsessed with finding picturesque views that he refuses to consider practical difficulties. In a manner similar to Dr. Syntax, the tourists on the boat seem relatively unconcerned about the storm clouds whirling above them. This theme of the absurdly eager tourist is subtly drawn out in the details of the piece, such as the uneasy facial expression of the boatman and the look of puzzlement on the fisherman’s face, dumbfounded by Syntax’s stubbornness. As an extension of Syntax, Syntax’s horse munches absentmindedly on grass, while another animal, the fisherman’s dog (presumably native to the area) looks anxiously at its owner, wary of the rain and wind to come. Maintaining his obstinate role as a devotee of the picturesque, however, Doctor Syntax proclaims in the poem that “the first, the middle, and the last / In picturesque is bold contrast" (Combe 117); this, along with his aforementioned comments regarding the storm as a potential source of the picturesque, inform us of common perceptions regarding this key tenet of Romantic visual culture. Finally, Rowlandson may have included the perplexed fisherman as a nod to the inhabitants of the Lake District, who were becoming increasingly perturbed with the flood of tourists to their neighborhoods (Andrews, In Search of the Picturesque 153).
Caricature was a cheap form of entertainment during the early nineteenth century, and served to report on daily news and happenings 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.
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