Recent Acquisitions feature: The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque: A Game

This is the first in a series of posts featuring items that will be on display during the Rare Book Collection’s Recent Acquisitions Evening on March 22.

The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque: A Game is a parlor game based on William Combe’s satirical poem The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.

Combe’s poem skewered the aesthetic ideal of the picturesque, which was ascendant at the time of the poem’s publication in 1809. Lovers of the picturesque prized rustic, natural, and asymmetrical scenes that reconciled the tension between the beautiful and the sublime. English writer, artist, and educator William Gilpin articulated the notion of the picturesque in a 1768 essay and depicted it in sketches that often featured ruins in the English countryside.

The picturesque ideal caught on like wildfire among England’s educated and moneyed classes, who had increasing access to the countryside with the expansion of railroads. Soon England’s Lake District filled with tourists observing and sketching rustic scenes.

Penrith Castle in 1772 from William Gilpin’s book on Cumberland and Westmoreland.

As with any cultural movement that captures the public imagination so completely, the picturesque and its devotees became ripe for satire at the height of its popularity. With his poem The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, writer William Combes seemed to relish the opportunity.

Originally published with humorous caricatures by artist Thomas Rowlandson, the poem depicted a Don Quixote-style “hero,” probably modeled on Gilpin. The character Dr. Syntax undertakes a series of adventures in which he’s so blinded by his quest for picturesque scenery that he falls victim to all manners of peril.

The poem itself became wildly popular, becoming the subject of a variety of cultural adaptations. One of them is this parlor game.

With a complicated set of instructions (“The lines refer to the picture whose number is next in rotation. Namely No 1 card refers to No 2 picture…”) and a colorful teetotum to spin, the game is a fantastic example of literature adapted as a board game.

This and many other intriguing items will be on display at the Rare Book Collection’s Recent Acquisitions Evening, a not-under-glass display of some of the Collection’s notable acquisitions. We hope you’ll join us on March 22 for the unique opportunity to see these incredible items up close.

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