Doctor Syntax Tumbling into the Water


Dr. Syntax falls backward off his rocky seat into the water. Though his hat has fallen into the water, he still clutches his pen and journal: he has evidently been sketching the moss-covered ruins of the castle crowning the small hill before him. To the right of the ruin a ship sails on the water, more hills rising behind it in the distance. On the left side of the print, Dr. Syntax’s haggard steed, Grizzle, looks on as his master slips off his perch at the water's edge.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 574

Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

Doctor Syntax Tumbling into the Water was first published in the inaugural issue of Poetical Magazine (1809), along with the rest of Combe’s poem, “The Schoolmaster’s Tour.” It was later bound in book form (May, 1812).
The Wye Tour

The popularity of the Wye Tour, a picturesque tour through the England-Wales border down the River Wye, increased exponentially during the 1780s and the decades that followed (though the Wye river was a popular site for at least twenty-five years before Gilpin’s tour); this was due in large part to the tour guide-book Observations on the River Wye, written by the Reverend William Gilpin and published in 1782. The tour focused on the natural beauty of the Wye Valley, especially the part of the Valley that fit Gilpin’s idea of the “correctly picturesque”—usually characterized by a natural object (e.g., a tree, a stone, cliffs; anything not human-made) which stood out in stark contrast to its surroundings and was often in close proximity to people or human-made objects (factories, bridges, and the like). The tour lasted two to three days by boat (the most common form of travel for tourists) or carriage (used only by the very wealthy), and significantly longer by foot; William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, took a walking tour of the Wye Valley in 1798 (see William Wordsworth’s memorial poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798”). The most common form of travel was by pleasure boat, which featured a canopy to shield tourists from the wind, sun, and rain; a handful of tables for writing or drawing; and several oarsmen who acted as de facto tour guides and cost three to four guineas for two days' employment (Moir 125). The tour extended, as Gilpin noted, “To [Chepstow] from Ross, which is a course of near 40 miles” and featured “a succession of the most picturesque scenes” (Gilpin 7). Highlights included Ross-on-Wye, Goodrich Castle, Symond’s Yat, Monmouth, Tintern Abbey, Piercefield, Chepstow Castle, and, finally, the junction of the Rivers Wye and Severn at Chepstow.

Picturesque Tourism

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 Royal Academy

Rowlandson started his studies at the Royal Academy in 1772, exhibiting his work for the first time in 1775. It is notable that, unlike the majority of the Royal Academy, Rowlandson strayed from painting and developed his commercial draughtsman skills instead. His focus on responding to the popular demand for prints and caricatures contributed to his success in printselling (Hayes).
-William Combe's The Schoolmaster's Tour:

First published, in royal octavo, in monthly parts in Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine(1809-1811)

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)

-Translations and Imitations

Die Reise des Doktor Syntax . . . (Berlin 1822) with lithography by F.E. Rademacher

M. Gandais’s translation Le Don Quichotte Romantique, ou Voyage du Docteur Syntax . . . with engravings by Malapeau and lithography by G. Engelman

-Tour of Doctor Syntax through London

-Doctor Syntax in Paris in Search of the Grotesque

-Dr. Prosody

-Dr. Syntax’s Life of Napoleon

-William Combe’s text for the caricature (from The Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque, A Poem):

Learning that a riverside castle had just been hit by lightning and reduced to ruins, Syntax decides to sketch this ready-made Gothic scene, only to stumble into the river:
A heap of stone the Doctor found,

Which loosely lay upon the ground,

To form a seat, where he might trace

The antique beauty of the place:

But, while his eyes observ’d the line

That was to limit the design,

The stones gave way, and sad to tell,

Down from the bank he headlong fell.
Thomas Rowlandson's Doctor Syntax Tumbling into the Water serves as more than slapstick humor. The clueless seeker of the picturesque, Doctor Syntax, has wandered onto unstable ground in search of a picturesque angle of the ruin; tumbling backwards off a rock, Syntax goes sprawling into the water below. This farcical caricature illustrates the public perspective of picturesque tourists as foolishly obsessed with finding picturesque views—even to the point of of pain and humiliation.
The circulation of satire prints was an integral part of popular culture during the eighteenth century, and, as one of the most successful in this work, Thomas Rowlandson came to set the standard for the Romantic caricature aesthetic (Murray 154). An accomplished and prolific draughtsman, Rowlandson's renowned work encapsulated the power of caricature. With his numerous publications, including his fictional accounts of the three tours of Dr. Syntax, Rowlandson’s drawings were widely available to the public—effective because they could be enjoyed and understood by those who were illiterate. These drawings conveyed an honest, self-reflective, and often humorous perspective of common lifestyles; enjoyed as aesthetic and intelligent works of art, they also served as silent arbiters of politically charged or mischievous commentary (Savory 8-10). In particular, Doctor Syntax Tumbles into the Water pokes fun at the obsessive trend of looking for the picturesque. Rowlandson’s caricature is significant because it is an example of early public backlash against picturesque tourism and picturesque tourists (Wordsworth labeled the infatuation with the picturesque “that great infection of the age” in his Prelude). By lampooning Dr. Syntax’s dogged pursuit of the right angle for a picturesque rendition of the ruins, Rowlandson implies that short-sighted, foolish activity typically defines the pastimes of picturesque tourists. The preoccupation of the boat’s passengers with the ruins rather than with the tumbling Dr. Syntax may reflect the tunnel-vision of the Wye tourist.

Perhaps ironically, Rowlandson’s depiction of the ruins, the subject of Syntax’s attempted sketch, fits the definition of what Gilpin would call “properly picturesque.” The ruins are dilapidated and crumbling, overtaken by ivy or moss, and so fulfill the requisite contrast between natural and human creations. The Romantic viewer cannot escape the picturesque, even in caricatures that mock its disciples; further enacting this combination of critique and participation, the accompanying text reads as both a warning to those tourists who are too invested in discovering the picturesque and serves as a handbook for tourists who wish to conduct themselves with propriety during their travels. In the passage preceding Dr. Syntax’s fateful fall into the stream, the hapless traveler is informed in passing of a ruined castle that is not far from his lodgings. He enthusiastically siezes the opportunity to capture the sublime or picturesque, thinking to himself “A castle, and a ruin too,— / I’ll hasten there and take a view” (Combe 70). Confronted with the actual ruin, Syntax finds himself wondering why it is not more picturesque instead of actually "taking a view":
But now, alas! no more remains

Than will reward the painter’s pains:

The palace of the feudal victor

Now serves for nought but for a picture

Plenty of water here I see,

But what’s a view without a tree?

There’s something grand in yonder tow’r,

But not a shrub to make a bow’r;

Howe’er, I’ll try to take the view,

As well as my best art can do.
Since the actual scene is found lacking, Dr. Syntax determines to use his “art” to enhance it. Mimicking the discourse of landscape improvement, Combe is lampooning the very idea of finding the picturesque in the natural world. In effect, Rowlandson’s print, accompanied by William Combe’s book-length poem, simultaneously satirizes and participates in the guidebook genre.
Caricature was a widely popular print form in London, appreciated for its versatility: an arbiter of daily news, political commentary, and entertainment, it was an art form that could be enjoyed by all classes of people (Mendelowitz 142-44).
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.

Falk, Bernard. Thomas Rowlandson: His Life and Art, a Documentary Record. London: Hutchinson, 1949. 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.

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, 1880. Print.

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.

Mendelowitz, Daniel Marcus. Drawing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1980. Print.

Moir, Esther. The Discovery of Britain; The English Tourists. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1964. Print.

Murray, Christopher John. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era. Taylor & Francis, 2004. Print.

Paulson, Ronald. Rowlandson: A New Interpretation. London: Studio Vista, 1972. Print.

Pyne, W.H. and William Combe. Microcosm of London, or London in Miniature. 3 vols. London: Ackermann, 1904. Print.

Rowlandson, Thomas. Drawings of Thomas Rowlandson in the Paul Mellon Collection. Comp. John Riely. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1977. Print.

Savory, Jerold J. Thomas Rowlandson’s Doctor Syntax Drawings: An Introduction and Guide for Collectors. London: Cygnus Arts, 1997. Print.

Wolf, Edward Carl Johannes. Rowlandson and his Illustrations of Eighteenth Century English Literature. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1945. Print.
Rowlandson. Dr. Syntax Tumbling into the Water. From William Combe’s The Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque, A Poem. London: R. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1812. Image selected is facing page 71. Memorial Library Special Collections Thordarson Collection. Thordarson T 574.



Image Date: 

1 May 1812


Rudolph Ackermann

Creation Technique: 

Support Medium: