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Regency London

These delightful comic adventures of the fictional Doctor Syntax, an amiable and naïve elderly country clergyman created by the prolific writer William Combe (1742-1823), are set against the background of Regency England, and in particular Regency London, to which Doctor Syntax and his wife make a journey of pleasure.

Their stay in the metropolis is full of mishaps – the Doctor falls in the Thames while taking a boat trip – and triumphs – he is presented to the Prince Regent, soon to become George IV – and their adventures are amusingly illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson and other artists. 

Episodes such as Doctor Syntax’s attendance at a masked ball, shown in the image here, and his visit to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, evoke the spirit of gaiety and frivolity perhaps most commonly associated with the Regency metropolis. The historian Boyd Hilton sums up this facet of the period:

It was the age of the waltz, of plays, balls, and masquerades, of silver forks, bucks and blades, dandies, beaux, bloods and swells, of West End clubbers and porter louts, their numbers boosted by returning officers on half-pay, as well as by foreign visitors coming to try their luck at dice and hazard on the London tables.

Colourful plate showing Doctor Syntax at a masquerade, wearing a costume and maskDoctor Syntax at a masqueradeYet this tells only half the story. It was also an age of outstanding architecture and town planning, notably by John Nash, Robert Smirke and Sir John Soane, and of the foundation of many museums and learned institutions.

Dulwich Picture Gallery and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum were established, and Doctor Syntax attends a lecture at the London Institution, founded in 1805 to promote the diffusion of science, literature and the arts, particularly to Nonconformists, who were debarred by their religious beliefs from attending the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

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