William Combe – The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of Consolation, 1820

dr syntax sketching the lake. picturesque

Now in grave, contemplative mood.
Syntax his beauteous way pursued;
Detaching with his skilful eye.
From this proud stretch of scenery.
Such chosen parts as might display.
The landscape grand, or rude, or gay;
The spreading wood, the awful steep.
Impending o’er the crystal deep.
And many a more familiar scene.
That here and there might intervene.
Such as his less ambitious art
To the fair sketch-book could impart.
And graphic notices secure.
To give these views a miniature.

The native beauties that preside
And form the charms of AMBLESIDE,
As they all open’d on the sight,
Perplex’d the bosom with delight:
__” Then Stockgill Force, with deaf’ning roar,
Did from a height stupendous pour
Its rushing streams from unseen source
Impetuous; they their foaming coarse,
Dash’d on from rock to rock, pursue.
Now hid, now open to the view:
When, many a craggy bottom past,
They the deep Rothay reach at last,
And, rushing on in bold career,
Give up their waves to WINDERMERE.

At once delighted and amaz’d,
Syntax now made a pause and gaz’d;
Though in his visits here before
This scene his eyes had wander’d o’er.
Nay, here his pencil had essay’d.
And with attentive pleasure made
Bold sketches from this very scene.
Where with his neighbours he had been;
Yet former knowledge to renew,
He thought he now would take a view.
And from his pouch the sketch-book drew
Thus while his Art he now employ’d
And the rich scene around enjoy’d.
Forth from behind a bulky tree.
As urg’d by curiosity,
A person stole with gentle pace
And keen enquiry in his face:
At length he grew a little bolder.
And just peep’d o’er the Doctor’s shoulder.
With a keen, forward eye to see
The pencil’s active industry.
Says PAT, ” unless you court disaster,
You’d better not disturb my master.
For if you do, __” you may not dream
That you’ll go headlong down the stream.”
Syntax now look’d around to see
What caus’d Pat’s incivility.
Then quickly wav’d his awful hand.
And as he dealt forth the command;
He taw half-screen’d beside a bush,
What seem’d a brother of the brush,
Who ‘neath each arm display’d to show
A cumbersome Port-Folio:
And on his dress, through ey’ry part,
Was seen some implement of Art:
But soon he prov’d, without restraint.
That he could talk as well as paint.


“From what I see and doth appear.
You, Sir, may be a stranger here;
And as you now employ your Art,
I may some useful hints impart.
I am an Artist, would you see
Art’s finest works, pray come with me.
You may view all, if you are willing;
The Exhibition costs a shilling;
And in this stream I would be drown’d.
Should you not think it worth a pound.
Nay, if your means the price supply.
Such as you chuse, why you may buy.”

Syntax, it seems, had heard before
Of this same Artist, (with his store
Of Sketches, Drawings and Designs,
Display’d on walls and hung on lines,)
Who does to rival skill demur.
And is his own Interpreter.
So he indulged him in his glory.
And let him enter on his story.
__” As he the Exhibition view’d,
The Artist his discourse pursued.


“I need not tell you. Sir, that Art
Demands a power in ev’ry part,
Which should pervade its form and feature;
And that, as you must know, is NATURE.
Say, wherefore, does my active eye
Seize on her various scenery?
And wherefore is it thus confest.
That I ne’er fail to chuse the best?
__” Because I seek her wheresoe’er
She woos me to her mild and fair;
Because, when she’s sublimely good,
She courts me in the wild and rude,
I ask you where is her abode
Which by my feet has not been trod?
The heights, the depths, the falling floods,
The rugged rocks or spreading woods?
Where, tell me, is th’ Arcadian scene.
With sunshine gay, as em’rald green.
Where my researches have not been?
In all this beauteous country round,
No, not a spot is to be found.
At orient morn, or evening grey.
Where I’ve not urg’d my studious way:
Where, by a nice experience taught.
Each varying, transient tint is caught.
Here clouds upon the mountain rest.
And sink in mists upon its breast:
Here the light falls with silver beam.
Or the sun glows with golden gleam.
There the flood pours its foamy wave.
Or various forms in shadow lave;
And, glimm’ring in the crystal plain.
In fainter outline live again.
There, where is seen within the glade.
The less or greater depth of shade;
Where the thin air conducts the eye.
Transparent mirror, to the sky;
And wheresoe’er the varying feature
Aids the full aggregate of Nature,
My Art can dip the pencil in it,
And fix the beauty of the minute.
__Hence my superior works, and hence
In Art I claim pre-eminence.
__There are your Artists, who, in town.
From gaudy daubs expect renown;
Whose rank true taste will ne’er prefer
To that of an Upholsterer;-
Nor does their utmost stretch of art
Excel the Paper-Stainer’s part.
They do not Nature’s works pursue.
As I with patient labour do.
They may from some steep warehouse ridge
Sketch water-falls at London-Bridge;
Or study the transparent wave.
That does the grassy meadows lave.
Where the New River’s lagging on
Through the bright scene of Islington:
They let their wearied pencil breathe.
From crowded choice, on Hampstead-Heath,
Or leaning ‘gainst a stunted oak.
Make bright designs of London smoke :
There they in tints so mild and mellow.
May mark out sunbeams red and yellow.
And study foliage from a rood.
Or a score yards, of underwood:
Then their big minds with mountains fill.
By views of Harrow-on-the-Hill;
And catch, from the New Road so strait.
The Picturesque of Turnpike Gate.
There’s Hyde- Park too, the charming scene.
Which they may view so flat, so green;
And trace the ever-varying line.
Along the strait-bank’d Serpentine.
Thus with their pencils on they go,
From low to high, from high to low.
And fancy hills, as they move on
The level walks of Kensington;
Where, though it loyal bosoms shock.
They turn the Palace to a Rock.
Some will the Picturesque beseech
To aid the view of Chelsea- Reach;
But left by Genius in the lurch,
Can only reach to Chelsea-Church:
Then, as it were, to crown the whole.
To fill the view, to charm the soul,
How proudly they let loose their eye,
From St. Paul’s Golden Gallery,
To view the vast horizon round
That half-a-dozen miles may bound.
__These glorious Artists of the Town,
Will club expenses to come down.
The boast of Nature here to see
And slyly borrow Art from me.
Yes, I have often seen them smile.
Their fruitless envy to beguile.
__But now pray turn your eye to see
What hangs on lines from tree to tree.
They are my works which I display
In the full air of open day:
And, though expos’d to sun and sky,
My Colours, Sir, will never fly.”


“Upon my word you make me stare.
And I most solemnly declare,
I thought them linen that you wear;
Your shirts and shifts hung out to dry,
In washerwoman’s symmetry.”


“Not one R. A. has got the gift
To make him such a shirt or shift;
They’re first-rate works that deck the line,
‘Twas this hand drew them, they are mine,
And I declare among them all
That each is an Original


“‘Tis not for me to controvert
What you so boldly do assert;
But as my eye these drawings strike,
They, my good friend, are all alike.
You cannot wish the truth to smother,
That they are Copies of each other.
If so, why, surely, he who calls
These copied works Originals
Gives such a meaning to the word,
I as a scholar never heard.”


“I tell you, if the copies prove,
(Nor does my understanding rove,)
True both in tint and touch and line.
To the original design.
And copied by the self-same hand
That does my pencil’s power command;
Those Drawings, must to Critic eye.
Share in th’ Originality;
And be the number what they may.
If they unerring Truth display,
I say, in spite of envy’s brawls,
That they are all ORIGINALS.”


“At least, I think it must be known.
That, Mr, Artist, you are one.”

By these keen fancies rendered gay,
Syntax proceeded on his way.

At length, a beauteous place of rest,
Lowood, receives the trav’lling guest.
And here he found a two-fold treat;-
Hungry, he relish’d what he eat;
While Nature did his bosom cheer,
As he glanc’d over Windermere.
The humbler views that deck the Lake,
The hills, the groves, the farms that break
In blended beauty on the sight.
He saw, but the bold mountain’s height.
Which gave the wond’rous scenes sublime.
He sought not, for he had not time.
And if he had, my simple rhyme
Would scarce have such a height assail’d.
Where far superior bards have fail’d.

William Combe, 1741-1823, illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827

The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of Consolation, 1820

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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