A tribute to Doctor Syntax, the first 19th century British comics brand

An illustration from “The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque”

An illustration from “The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque”

Doctor Syntax – not to be confused with the hip hop rapper – was a hybrid character of caricature and comic verse, and one of the first illustrated characters to have his own merchandise in England, the work of political caricaturist Doctor Thomas Rowlandson for Poetical Magazine, illustrating the writing of William Combe.

The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque was serialised between 1809 and 1811 in The Poetical Magazine, then collected by its publisher in 1812, art dealer, stationer and innovator Rudolph Ackerman, with the addition of Combe’s text , which breathed new life into the character.

With a taste for artistic prints which included work by Isaac Cruikshank, George Sauley and George Woodward, Ackermann enjoyed the social satire popular in the Georgian age.

Combe’s poem satirises the aesthetic ideals lying behind the picturesque, the aesthetic concept that had evolved in late 18th-century Britain – and its frequently pompous followers. In particular, William Gilpin, who toured Britain to describe his theory of the Picturesque.

An illustration from “The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque”

Pre-dating Rodophe Töpffer’s graphic novel work and the The Glasgow Looking-Glass in The Drouth, regarded as the world’s first comics magazine, the illustrated poem tells how Dr Syntax, a curate, sets off in search of the ideal picturesque landscape only to be continually thwarted by bathetic and farcical inconveniences.

During the course of the poem the unfortunate Dr Syntax stumbles into a lake while attempting to reach the perfect location from which to sketch a suitably ruined castle, is chased by a bull and driven to distraction by the incessant bleating of sheep.

An illustration from “The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque”An illustration from “The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque”

The tale, woven around Rowlandson’s prints proved so popular that not only were two more Syntax adventures published, the work also spawned several spin-offs and pirated editions over a period of about 80 years. The character of Syntax lived a long and varied life beyond his creators, including a plethora of ceramic ware, a successful racehorse and an appearance in Victorian pantomime.

The book was followed by two similar Tours, “… in search of Consolation” (published in 1819) and “… in search of a Wife,” the first Mrs Syntax having died at the end of the first Tour. The second Tour was collected as a book in 1820, the third tour in 1821.

Thomas Rowlandson’s pencils for the 1820 illustration “Dr. Syntax and Fox Hunters”. Image via the Internet Archive

Thomas Rowlandson’s pencils for the 1820 illustration “Dr. Syntax and Fox Hunters”. Image via the Internet Archive

A prolific writer throughout his life Combe also wrote Six Poems in illustration of drawings by Princess Elizabeth (1813), The English Dance of Death (1815–1816), The Dance of Life (1816–1817), and The Adventures of Johnny Quae Genus (1822), all written for Rowlandson’s caricatures.

Rowlandson – a widely travelled watercolour painter and illustrator was one of the 19th century’s major British caricaturists, becoming an extensive book illustrator, particularly in his work for Ackermann from 1798, not only for The Tours of Dr. Syntax, but The Microcosm of London, published in 1808.

Derby Pocelain figure of Dr Syntax, on display in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Image by “Victuallers” via Wikimedia

Derby Pocelain figure of Dr Syntax, on display in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Image by “Victuallers” via Wikimedia

While Combe and Rowlandson’s collaborations are illustrated texts rather than graphic storytelling as we know it today, I think it’s fair to suggest the format of The Tour of Doctor Syntax is an example of a blending of words and pictures that paved the way toward the comics we enjoy now.

The British Library holds a copy of the 1812 edition

LibriVox recording of The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque by William Combe on the Internet Archive

You can buy Dr Syntax prints from the Royal Academy

• More about William Combe on Wikipedia

• More about artist Thomas Rowlandson on Wikipedia

With thanks to Alex Grand for sending me down this particular rabbit hole

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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