Doctor Syntax was a peripatetic clergyman who set off "in search of the picturesque"--finding pleasing vistas was an appropriately refined pastime in those days. Along the way, he has a series of adventures, which are portrayed in Rowlandson's illustrations. Strangely, the familiar Staffordshire pottery group of Doctor Syntax playing at cards bears no resemblance to the book plate illustrating that adventure. Instead, our potters used their own imagination. But a rare group titled Dr Syntax Stopped by Highwaymen mimics one of the book plates titled Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.
In 1809, the artist Thomas Rowlandson, who had gambled away his fortune, produced a series of aquatint engravings of a traveling clergyman-schoolmaster on a tour in search of the picturesque. The publisher Rudolf Ackermann thought them ideal for his new Poetical Magazine, so he asked William Combe, languishing within debtors’ prison, to write accompanying prose. The collaboration was unusual: Combe and Rowlandson did not meet, but each month Ackermann supplied Combe with one drawing, and the writer produced the required lines of verse. As a result, The Schoolmaster’s Tour was published in serial form from 1809. The almost 10,000-line doggerel was immensely popular, and in 1812 Ackermann published a revised version, The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, as a book, complete with thirty Rowlandson aquatints. In 1820 and 1821, Combe and Rowlandson completed the Doctor Syntax trilogy with The Second Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of Consolation and The Third Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of a Wife. In 1822, an unremarkable sequel, The Adventures of Johnny Quae Genus, the Little Foundling of the Late Doctor Syntax, was Combe’s swan song on the Doctor Syntax theme. Doctor Syntax’s three tours remained popular reading for decades longer. Today their prose is no longer in vogue, but the beauty of Rowlandson’s aquatints has not faded with time, and neither have those other captivating memento of the saga: earthenware figures of the peripatetic cleric.
Read chapter 19 of my book, People, Passions, Pastimes, and Pleasures: Staffordshire Figures 1810-1835, to learn about Doctor Syntax and see large color pictures of other Syntax figures,