Week 10: A tour in search of Dr Syntax

My final act of #AcWriMo will be to mark the opening of an exhibition at the British Cartoon Archive curated by Nick Hiley (Head of the BCA) and I with a talk entitled ‘A tour in search of Dr Syntax’.

I’ve written about Syntax and the Rowlandson Collection at the BCA before, but this exhibition and talk will cast its net a little wider to discuss the trade which sold Syntax, the relationships which brought this character to market, and his afterlife in the English imagination. One curious example of this afterlife is Edwyn Collins’ 2002 album Doctor Syntax (if anyone can explain why Collins chose to combine Syntax with a cover image of Mikhail Lermontov I would be most grateful). Another is the appearance of ‘Dr Syntax’ in Edward Blanchard’s Mother Goose and the Enchanted Beauty. Played at Drury Lane Theatre as their 1880-1 Christmas Annual, the pantomime features Dr Syntax as master to Prince Florizel in the final scenes. Though a minor character, Blanchard’s Syntax displays all the characteristics of the early nineteenth century original – he is nervous, confused, and a figure of fun.

In the final scene of the farce, Syntax and company stumble across an enchanted wood. It is here that Syntax shines:

YOKEL. There!
TUTOR (terrified) Where?
YOKEL. There lies our path.
TUTOR. Lies! Well it shouldn’t!
YOKEL. Right through the wood.
TUTOR. I truly wish it wouldn’t.
WHIMWAY [Prince Florizel’s servant]. But where’s the Prince?
TUTOR. Oh, dear! With all our slyness
We’ve been, and gone, and lost his Royal Highness
Our Prince. The head of all we hold most dear.
YOKEL. The head! Its prints of footsteps we want here.
TUTOR. Ah! All this comes of having too much learning,
When I said “Right,” he thought I mean’t the turning [obsequious Syntax]
YOKEL. Eh, lad, I’m glad I never knew too much.

‘A tour in search of Dr Syntax’ opens at the British Cartoon Archive  (Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury), on 30 November and will run into the new year.

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