Doctor Syntax & the Bees: A Satirical Analysis

By Christine Chan, AD&A Museum Intern

AD&A Museum Intern, Christine Chan, Dives into the analysis of two satirical images to help visualize the various techniques used in the AD&A Museum’s print collection. Scroll down to learn more about the different types of satire and how they consistently appear in pictures to form caricature drawings.


Figure 1: Thomas Rowlandson (b. United Kingdom, 1756 – 1827), ‘Doctor Syntax and the Bees‘, ca. 1820. Aquatint etching on paper, 5 ½ x 8 ¼ in. Gift of Robin Newell Wynslow, acc. no. 2019.011.001. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; UC Santa Barbara.

In the AD&A Museum’s collection of prints and drawings exists an etching of Doctor Syntax and the Bees. This illustration by Thomas Rowlandson was one that spearheaded the movement of satirical cartoons. Not only did his work amused the viewer, but it also served as a persuasion technique. Doctor Syntax and the Bees accompanied William Combe’s satirical poem book The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation

Applying a literary analysis approach to a visual piece, the featured cartoon and its satirical elements are discussed here in relation to the characters and plot line. Satire is traditionally conveyed through five elements: exaggeration, symbolism, labeling, analogy, and irony. Although not all five traditional elements of satire are present in the cartoon, exaggeration, symbolism and irony deliver a parody, Horatian satire piece.

The character Dr. Syntax is based on William Gilpin (1724 – 1804), an English cleric, schoolmaster, artist, and author. Gilpin is regarded as the father of the “Picturesque,” defined as “that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.” The notion of “picturesque” simplifies nature to a form oblivious to the realities of the world and surroundings. This concept became Combe’s subject of criticism. Due to its satirical nature, the book also brings about social pressure to those who still follow Gilpin’s ideals. 

About the adventures of Dr. Syntax:

Combe’s story follows Dr. Syntax as he travels around the countryside in search of the perfect scenery and channels his inner Don Quixote, and like Quixote, encounters many misfortunes. Dr. Syntax’s goal is to make money by drawing, writing, and publishing works of the landscape. 

In one adventure, Dr. Syntax comes across Lady Bounty. Lady Bounty invites him for a meal on her estate, where Dr. Syntax pours his adventures and achievements on the dinner table. In response, the host invites Dr. Syntax to draw some of the statues and sculptures on the estate. The next day, Dr. Syntax gets to work. Curious, Lady Bounty stands on a terrace-wall to check his progress (see Figure 1). Suddenly, he gets attacked by a swarm of bees! In the poem, as well as the etching, Dr. Syntax, in a black suit, falls from a chair. Six witnesses at his right rush toward him with various tools in an attempt to scare away the bees. To escape from the wild ambush, Dr. Syntax runs to the nearest body of water, causing his wig to fly off. He then quickly submerges himself in the water. Both Lady Bounty and the onlookers seem to be amused by this event.


Satirical elements in the etching of Rowlandson’s Dr. Syntax’s Bees

Figure 2: Marie Duval (b. United Kingdom, 1847-1890), Judy Rides an Ostrich, ca. 1875. Ink on paper, frontispiece. Image courtesy of the Marie Duval Archive.

The first element of satire found in the etching is exaggeration. Rowlandson’s depiction of Dr. Syntax is a caricature. While Dr. Syntax has an extremely long and pointy chin, tall cone-shaped wig, and awkward falling stance, the other characters have relatively humanistic proportions and postures. Caricature is a technique often used in cartoons. Judy Rides an Ostrich (Figure 2) is a more pronounced example of such technique. The difference in art style creates a clear distinction between real and fake. The caricatured figure represents the unreal, similar to how the aesthetic category of “picturesque” strays away from reality. 

The medieval tower, fortress wall and trimmed tree in the background, along with tombstones in the foreground set the scene. Lady Bounty’s estate is an example of what Gilpin considers a “picturesque” scene: medieval ruins in a well-maintained landscape. 

The next element of satire is symbolism. The conical wig worn by Dr. Syntax is a symbol of decadence and status in the 18th and 19th centuries. To the bees, however, it is no more than a hive coated in sweet powder, a practice used to mask the smell of hair. Similar to how Gilpin reduces nature to its most bare and artificial form, the bees reduce Dr. Syntax’s prestige to ridicule.

Irony is the most prevalent element in this piece. On the right side of the illustration, the crowd braces themselves as they prepare for a war with the bees. With weapons in hand, they intend to calm down or scare away the swarm. However, their actions and intentions are ironic as agitating bees will produce the opposite effect. To tie it all together and emphasize the creators’ message again, the concept of picturesque, as defined by Gilpin, attempts to control nature. However, in reality, bees play a big part in maintaining a beautiful landscape, the same landscape as praised by Gilpin, through pollination. Gilpin’s ideal image of the world omits them and aims to create a nature without nature.


References

 1Fay, Jessica. “What Is the Picturesque?” National Trust. National Trust, February 22, 2017. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/what-is-the-picturesque-.


This satirical analysis was developed by Art, Design & Architecture Museum Intern Christine Chan during 2021–22.

To learn more about the AD&A Museum Internship Program, please visit https://museum.ucsb.edu/learn/internship.

Blog post organized by Lexi Rivera, AD&A Museum Intern.

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