Week 13: “But what about Gilpin?”

Yesterday (Friday 30th) the Doctor Syntax show I’ve been putting together opened at the British Cartoon Archive, followed by a talk from me entitled ‘A Tour in Search of Doctor Syntax’. I used this as an opportunity to discuss the making and selling of satirical prints through the lens of Syntax, as well as to say a little about historical objects left to us (in short, the Syntax books that survive tend not to reveal the modularity these objects had in their own time – for more on which see my piece on the Comics Grid) and the afterlives of Syntax (including an enjoyable twitter exchange with Edwyn Collins). I’ve uploaded the Prezi for this below, but if you want to know more about the talk get in touch.

Click the image to view the Prezi

So who is this Gilpin character you might ask? William Gilpin was a schoolmaster and writer on art who effectively invented the idea of the ‘picturesque’. The first tour of Doctor Syntax, in search of the picturesque (1812) was then – particularly in its original form the Schoolmaster’s Tour (from 1809 in Rudolph Ackermann‘s Poetical Magazine) – a satire on Gilpin and his prescriptions surrounding picturesque beauty in the English landscape. I failed to mention Gilpin in my talk, not because I didn’t know about the origins of Rowlandson’s Syntax character, but because I’m not especially interested in discursive origins, didn’t think it was that important to what I had to say, and then – ultimately – forgot that it might be useful to drop it in.

What a mistake.

Having said last week why I like giving public talks, the question after my paper “but what about Gilpin?” reminded me that public talks tend to attract fact hounds, the sort of people who know (and want you to confirm that you know) certain ‘important’ facts. The lady who asked the question was very apologetic for calling me out, but really she shouldn’t have been – she was quite right to do so. That said, if I was trying to get at the crux of the Syntax character in the talk, the Gilpin factor would have of course been given a more prominent place. But I wasn’t, so it didn’t seem important enough to include. In the future I’ll be more mindful to factual origins when constructing public talks: in part to avoid awkward backtracking; in part to ensure I cover the ‘obvious’ points my historian’s training has somehow stopped me considering obvious…


A Tour in Search of Doctor Syntax is open until February 2013 at the British Cartoon Archive, Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury.


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