Arts & Culture

Searches for the Picturesque

The Ontarion has invited writers from the Library, Archival & Special Collections to share stories about the unique pieces housed in the collection. Join us as we explore these fascinating, beautiful, scandalous, and weird bits of history. The items written about in these articles will be on display the week following publication in the exhibit case in the A&SC Reading Room on the 2nd floor of McLaughlin Library.

by Christina Smylitopoulos | Associate Professor, Art History
Ashley Shifflett McBrayne | Library Associate


Images courtesy of A&SC

CURIOUS, ILLUSTRATED BOOKS that are tied to the development of British graphic satire in the early nineteenth century have over the years made their way to the University of Guelph where they are now housed in Archival and Special Collections, predominantly as part of holdings on Scottish tourism. One example is a blockbuster series of 31 aquatints and whimsical poetry, collectively known as The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.

The Tour of Doctor Syntax was commissioned by the fashionable book and print seller Rudolf

Ackermann (1764–1834) for his Repository of Arts, which was located in the trendy London district of the Strand, and quickly became a source for fine colour-plate books. The aquatints — painting-like prints produced from a copper plate etched with acid —  were designed by “the ingenious Caricaturist” (and occasional pornographer) Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), who was the creative force behind the Syntax project and was celebrated in the period for humorous (often ribald) social commentary, delivered with style and a degree of enthusiasm reflecting both the energy and the critical spirit of edgy London urbanites. Despite his fame, critics were frustrated that Rowlandson seemed content to fritter away his Royal Academy-trained talent on the products of popular print, a response to his oeuvre that has persisted despite a more sophisticated understanding of the aesthetic opportunities graphic satire afforded to artists and its significance to the development and legacies of other respected artistic genres from the Georgian era.

Images courtesy of A&SC

First published in monthly episodes under the title The Schoolmaster’s Tour (1809 to 1811), this gentle satire on the Rev. William Gilpin (1724–1804) — an amateur artist and early theorist of the picturesque — pokes fun at travelers seeking an aesthetic experience in the British Isles.

In the Scottish context, travel through Scotland became increasingly popular when the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant published A Tour In Scotland in 1769 (1771) and A Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides 1772 (1774). Pennant’s commentary on the wild terrain of Scotland, the picturesque scenery, social customs, and antiquities, inspired others such as James Boswell (1740–1795) who invited the English writers Samuel Johnston (1709–1784) to tour Scotland with him, each publishing their own accounts

The picturesque privileged the formal qualities of irregularity and ruggedness over sinuous lines and symmetry and informed artistic practice, landscape design, and travel trends in the period, helping to establish homegrown views and vistas as worthy of study and contemplation.

Rowlandson’s images of the roving and sketching parson were sent out to the writer-for-hire William Combe (1742–1823), who never signed his work but nevertheless provided amusing poetry to accompany Rowlandson’s compositions. The result was wildly successful, and soon Doctor Syntax merchandise, including walking sticks, dinner plates, snuff boxes, and chamber pots — yes, chamber pots — became available to consumers of the London market.

Ackermann released the series in book format, which went into several editions and even inspired a collection of imitations from the publishing firms of opportunistic print and booksellers like M. Iley, J. Johnson, and W. Wright, who all attempted to profit from Syntax-like tours. While J. Johnson published The Tour of Doctor Syntax Through London, or the Pleasures and Miseries of the Metropolis, A Poem (1820), the London bookseller, M. Iley, published The Tour of Doctor Prosody in Search of the Antique and the Picturesque through Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkney and Shetland Isles (1821). Though some have attributed this work to William Combe as well, it most likely is not. Written in rhyming couplets, Doctor Prosody imitates the style of Combe’s popular Doctor Syntax series. The aquatints were created by caricaturists Charles Williams (died 1830) and W. Read in the style of Rowlandson. The frontispiece is by another renowned caricaturist, George Cruickshank (1792–1878), who was known for visually satirizing politicians and royals, who would go on to illustrate Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838).

Images courtesy of A&SC

“Doctor Syntax” was even used by publisher Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) as a pseudonym for a new publication entitled The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic poem in fifteen cantos, by Doctor Syntax with Thirty Engravings by George Cruickshank (1815). Tegg hired Rowlandson to provide a satirical progress of the title character on an Indian adventure in The Grand Master, or Adventures of Qui Hi? in Hindostan, A Hudibrastic Poem in Eight Cantos (1816).

In the hope of courting more success, Ackermann released subsequently two more episodes featuring Doctor Syntax: The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation (1820) and The Third Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of a Wife (1821), but after the publisher’s death, a competitor picked it up.

Ironically, Tegg re-released The Tour of Doctor Syntax in 1844 with eighty illustrations by the English comic artist Alfred Henry Forrester (1804–1872) working under the pseudonym Alfred Crowquill. Tegg writes, “With the setting sun of Rowlandson, the taste for his broad, luxuriant, but too exaggerated vein of caricature has also gone down; and in this respect, the public may be said to have stepped over the old style; whilst the facilities afforded by the art of engraving on wood, and its rapid improvement within the last few years, have opened to the artist a new field, and to the world a new pleasure.” One wonders if perhaps the innovation he boasts of was, in fact, a way to reconcile what could have been a failed attempt to lay his hands on Rowlandson’s original copper plates from Ackermann’s estate!

Images courtesy of A&SC

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