Doctor Syntax at Covent Garden Theatre


Dr. Syntax sits on the right-hand side of the back row in the pit, alongside a critic and a wit (Combe 223). He and his fellow theater-goers face the unfolding drama on the stage: two men battle over a prostrate body against a backdrop depicting rolling hills and a church. The stage is fronted by the orchestra pit, the double basses visible on the right. The three tiers of boxes and the upper galleries are crowded with viewers.

Primary Works: 

William Combe's The Tour of Doctor Syntax: in Search of the Picturesque: a Poem (London, 1812)

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T574

Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

This image was printed as Plate 16 in William Combe's The Tour of Doctor Syntax: in Search of the Picturesque: a Poem (London, 1812).
Rebuilding of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1808)

The Royal Opera House burned down in September 1808 and was rebuilt the following year; it burned again in 1856 and was rebuilt in a year. The costs of rebuilding the theatre not only raised prices, but also changed the seating arrangement of the auditorium: a number of inexpensive seats were replaced by more expensive boxes, leading to the “O.P.,” or old price, riots (Baer 1).
Covent Garden

Located northwest of the Strand in Westminster, London, Covent Garden was originally the convent garden of the Benedictines of Westminster. It passed to the Bedford family and was developed in the 1630s as the first residential square of its kind by Inigo Jones. The Covent Garden Market operated as the main fruit, flower, and vegetable market for more than three hundred years, formally established “forever” in 1670 by Charles II. It was also “the haunt of coffee-house literati and the theatrical demi-monde” in the eighteenth century (Thubron 12).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Opening in 1732, the Theatre Royal presented plays, pantomimes, and operas, which mounted and was managed by such noted actors as John Philip Kemble and Charles Kemble. It was established as the Royal Opera House in 1847. It burned down twice, its latest reconstruction occurring in 1856. The costs of rebuilding the theatre not only raised prices, but also changed the seating arrangement of the auditorium: a number of inexpensive seats were replaced by more expensive boxes, leading to the “O.P.,” or old price, riots (Baer 1). The auditorium was horse-shoe shaped with three tiers of twenty-six boxes each; each box contained ten seats in three rows. The third tier held the “private boxes,” each of which was accessed by a separate staircase and included its own retiring room (Wyndham I.324). After some alterations in response to the O.P. riots, the house held 2800 persons when full (Wyndham I.337). In 1888, the Royal Opera Company took residence there (Thubron 12; “Covent Garden”).
Other Versions:

-Royal octavo, monthly parts in Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine under title The Schoolmaster’s Tour (1809-11)

-Royal octavo, reworked and renewed in The Tour of Doctor Syntax: in Search of the Picturesque: a Poem (1812)


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 with lithography by F.E. Rademacher (Berlin, 1822)


-Life of Napoleon, by Doctor Syntax with 30 engravings by George Cruickshank (London, 1815)

-J. Johnson's The Tour of Doctor Syntax through London, or The Pleasures and Miseries of the Metropolis (London, 1820)

-W. Wright's Doctor Syntax in Paris, or A Tour in Search of the Grotesque (London, 1820)

Associated Images:

-Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin’s New Covent Garden Theatre, bound in The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (published by Ackermann in London, 1904)
In this illustration of William Combe's comic text, Dr. Syntax seeks the picturesque in the theater.

British. Caricature. Doctor Syntax. Popular culture.

Dr. Syntax was first introduced to the British public in The Schoolmaster’s Tour (1809), which appeared in Rudolph Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine, a monthly journal intended for the patrons of his “Repository of Arts” (Grego 38). In the course of this venture, Thomas Rowlandson created a caricature that was then sent to William Combe (in debtor’s prison at Kings’ Bench), who subsequently composed lines to accompany the print (Falk 156). The travels of the comical Dr. Syntax culminated in the fourth volume with his tour of the picturesque. Given the character's great success, the plates were reworked and renewed to appear in The Tour of Doctor Syntax: in Search of the Picturesque: a Poem (1812) with thirty-one illustrations. This work met with even greater approbation, and several editions were published within one season (Grego 39). Dr. Syntax’s immense popularity gave rise to a series of sequels describing other "tours" undertaken by the character, as well as a whole line of merchandise—from hats and coats to wigs (Falk 157).

In this image, an illustration from his first tour in search of the picturesque, Dr. Syntax finally makes his way to London, twenty years after his last visit. He determines to discover what changes have occurred in society—in wealth, art, and taste—by going to the play at Covent Garden. Once seated in the pit, Dr. Syntax examines the architecture of the house and finds it lacking in classical columns, with “Nought but a washy wanton waste / Of gaudy tins and puny taste” (Combe 224). Attempting to find the picturesque, he finds instead that the theater is “a vast profound” in which it is “too large to hear,—to long to see” (Combe 223-24). In addition to its immensity, the theater abounds in an “unmeaning symmetry” of parts without “the striking, whole?— / A theatre should have a soul” (Combe 224). Dr. Syntax examines the theater closely for a certain kind of aesthetic, the picturesque. However, the performance of the play recontextualizes his studied gaze as an errant one: instead of attending to the actual purpose of the theater, the performed drama, Dr. Syntax ignores the actors on stage and distracts himself with tangential factors.

His neighbor, the critic, voices a critique of Dr. Syntax's errant spectatorship. In response to Dr. Syntax’s musings, the critic argues that “These theatres are all a trade: / Their owners laugh at scrolls and friezes; / . . . / And you must know, it is their plan / To stick and stuff it as they can” (Combe 224). For the critic, the art and architecture of theater is a gaudy show meant to create a specific atmosphere at the least expense of money and space. For the theater owners, the “striking whole,” the guiding spirit of architecture for which Dr. Syntax searches, is not an aesthetic theory but a financial one: “’Tis a full house that pleases,” the critic says, “Your noble architect’ral graces / Would take up room, and fill up places” (Combe 224). The theater owners' prioritized, financial interest shifts the focus from the stage to the house with the implication that, rather than the drama or the architecture, it is the society filling the seats that matters. This shift is made apparent in the illustration, as most of the lines of sight are not directed at the stage but towards the boxes. Meanwhile, Dr. Syntax, though he conspicuously faces the stage, is actually gazing high up at the ceiling of the house. This absurd search for the picturesque in the inappropriate setting of the theater plays into Dr. Syntax's general habit of errant spectatorship, and so contributes to the humor of his larger quixotic quest. Rowlandson, then, offers the viewer an array of spectatorships available at the theater—and not simply the absurd, mistaken gaze of Dr. Syntax: one can, more reasonably, watch the spectacle of the drama on the stage, the spectacle of society in the boxes, or even potentially admire the theater itself for the pragmatism of its design.
Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. Print.

Borer, Mary Cathcart. Covent Garden. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1967. Print.

Carretta, Vincent. “Combe, William (1742–1823).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Jan. 2008. Web. 3 July 2013.

Combe, William. The Tour of Dr. Syntax: in Search of the Picturesque: a Poem. London: Ackermann, 1812. Print.

“Covent Garden.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 03 Jul. 2013. Print.

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. Print.

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

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

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

Thubron, Colin. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. London: Book Club Associates, 1982. Print.

Wyndham, Henry Saxe. The Annals of Covent Garden Theatre from 1732-1897. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1906. Print.
The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque. A Poem (London 1812) plate 26 by William Combe




Image Date: 

1 May 1812


Rudolph Ackermann

Creation Technique: 

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