Syntax and Satire
The Tour of Doctor Syntax follows a fictional schoolmaster’s adventures in search of the “picturesque.” A retired schoolmaster, Doctor Syntax stumbles upon outlandish situations and finds himself in humorous predicaments. Rowlandsons’s Doctor Syntax Meditating on the Tombs portrays the doctor with his tourist’s sketchbook, seeking artistic inspiration at the grave yard of a country church. There he finds grave diggers at work and children playing atop the tombstones while their mother prays at one in the background. The somber mood of the scene is lifted by the Doctor’s conversation with the gravedigger, who explains that he is happy to dig the grave belonging to a wicked lawyer named “Thrust.”
First published in 1771, this epistolary novel by Thomas Smollett (1721-1771), MD, follows the travels of the household of Matthew Bramble, who suffering from gout, spends time taking the waters at Bath. Writing to his physician Dr. Lewis, Bramble doubts that the drinking the water is sanitary: “It is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers” (p. 50).
In 1778 Rowlandson produced a series of prints, The Comforts of Bath, about this popular English spa resort. Displayed here is a preliminary drawing for one of these prints, entitled The Pump Room, depicting a social center at the spa where the water from the hot springs was sold as a medicinal beverage. In the left corner a figure in a wheel-chair probably suffers from gout, a crippling illness for which the waters at Bath were popularly thought to offer a miraculous remedy.
In The English Dance of Death Rowlandson applies his morbid sense of humor to a narrative poem by William Combe. The Quack Doctor depicts a busy apothecary mixing medicine for a line of anxious patients, while a man with gout, perhaps a regular customer, waits in a chair. Over his shoulder the man sees Death, who works a mortar and pestle labeled "Slow Poison" while watching for new clients in a mirror. The apothecary, however, assures that “These curious Panaceas will / If well applied cure every ill.” The fish hanging from the ceiling, which no one seems to notice, identifies him as an untrustworthy merchant whose goods “stink” like an old fish.