Local Heritage · Our Collection

William Gilpin & Dr. Syntax

Today’s article focuses on two notable figures – William Gilpin (1724-1804), a famed art critic and headteacher at Cheam School from 1752 to 1777, and Dr. Syntax, a fictional satirical character said to have been inspired by him.

William Gilpin:

Born on the 4th June 1724 at Scaleby Castle, six miles north of Carlisle, Gilpin came from a family of talented painters and churchmen. He himself was no exception, being skilled at drawing from a young age and desiring to enter the Church. He went to study at Queen’s, Oxford, in 1740, receiving both a B.A. in 1744 and an M.A. in 1748 there, but ultimately found it “solemn trifling” and had to work hard to repay his £80 debt there.

Gilpin was not the first headmaster of Cheam School, but he is arguably the most well known. The first headmaster (from c. 1645 to 1685) and founder was the Reverend George Aldrich, a Royalist sympathiser who had to teach his lessons in secret in order to stay safe from the Cromwell regime. The headmaster role would pass on to Henry Day (1685-1701), Robert Lloyd (1701-1711), Daniel Sanxay (1711-1739) and then Daniel’s son James Sanxay (1739-1752). The school started out with a good reputation, but this faltered under the leadership of James.

At the time James Sanxay stepped down, Cheam School was in a decrepit state, and there were concerns over whether it would close down. That all changed when Gilpin became headmaster. He wrote about his ideas for reforming the school in The Regulations of a Private School at Cheam in Surrey, and then put them to work. One idea he suggested was to allow boys to read what he saw as “innocent, entertaining books” as well as “some books ‘of a higher class’” in order to encourage a love of reading in them, an idea he put to work by placing the books in his library. Additionally, whilst corporal punishment was sometimes used, as was usual during the time period, it was very rare and Gilpin himself acknowledged the downsides of using it. Instead, more likely punishments were detention and fines.

Gilpin’s ideas turned out to be immensely successful. The school reached a high prestige that it never had before, even back before the previous headmaster’s tulmatious period. When he finally stepped down in 1777, he handed the role of headmaster to his son, also named William. Like his father, the school continued to prosper with him in charge.

Not only was Gilpin known for his teaching skills, but also for being a renowned art critic and painter. He mainly focused on landscape paintings of natural environments, often ones that he examined during his travels. The pictures were etched with aquatint, designed to produce tonal effects via acid being used to eat into the printing plate, thus creating sunken areas which hold ink. He often wrote about his views on art, publishing books such as Essay on Prints (1768), Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1772), Observations on the Lake District and the West of England (1791) and Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other woodland Views (1791).

One of Gilpin’s most famous contributions to art was the coining of the term “picturesque”. The idea that he proposed was that the landscape around us was best depicted at its most dramatic. This included rough, rugged views and edges, ruined buildings and stormy skies, things that can often be seen in his own paintings. Gilpin felt quite strongly about this view – one time, he suggested that with regard to the straight lines of Tintern Abbey, “a mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them” in order to make it look more appealing! The picturesque term would become an important aspect of the Romantic period. The term persists today, though currently means anything that is pleasing or beautiful to look at.

Dr. Syntax:

Despite Gilpin’s prestige, not everyone was on board with his ideas. Most notably, his views on the picturesque were mocked alongside him in the Dr. Syntax series, with narrative verse provided by William Combe and cartoons by Thomas Rowlandson. The cartoons in particular, somewhat reminiscent to the ones you’d find in the famed satirical Punch magazine later on, are seen to be the primary reason for the popularity of the series.

Plate 2: Doctor Syntax Losing His Way. © British Library

Dr. Syntax is a Cyrano-esque figure, accompanied by his old horse Grizzle. He is obsessed with the picturesque and finding scenes of beauty, often failing to take into account the harsh realities surrounding them. As a result, he gets himself into all kinds of scrapes, such as mistaking a gentleman’s house for an inn, losing his money and possessions, getting attacked by highwaymen, falling into a lake and being chased by animals. Yet the whole time, he remains none the wiser.

Plate 8: Doctor Syntax Pursued by a Bull. © British Library

Some people, such as William Templeton in his book The Life and Work of William Gilpin, argue that the satire in the series was not originally directed at Gilpin. Instead, it was simply mocking picturesque beliefs and those who had them in general. However, it is easy to pick out the similarities between Gilpin and Syntax – not only do they have similar beliefs, but they also write about their experiences. Syntax is also an artist, cleric and schoolteacher, just like how Gilpin was in real life.

There were three books in total – The Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque (1812), The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of Consolation (1820) and The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of a Wife (1821). All three were published by Robert Ackerman, a London-based publisher. Not only were they sold in Britain, but they were translated and sold in other countries such as France, Germany and Denmark.

The Dr. Syntax series is relatively obscure now, but was very popular back in the day. In fact, there are plenty of Dr. Syntax-themed items that have survived to today, including figurines and bowls. He is arguably as iconic as figures such as Mister Punch and John Bull (another figure that Rowlandson drew), who have often appeared in cartoons and satire.

A Dr. Syntax slops bowl and Dr. Syntax figurine, as displayed at Whitehall.

You can find out more about Cheam School, William Gilpin and Dr. Syntax by visiting the Porch Room at Whitehall. Gilpin’s paintings can be viewed online on art gallery websites such as Tate and the Royal Academy. The Dr. Syntax books are currently in the public domain and available to read online, with some of the cartoons also being available to view separately.

Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House volunteer.

Works Cited:

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