The word “picturesque” has long been a rather vague way of describing a certain ramshackle beauty — in particular the beauty of a rural landscape, or a country house, or some other old structure gone to attractive ruin. But the word has its origins in late eighteenth-century Britain, where the artist, Anglican cleric, and schoolmaster William Gilpin (1724–1804) was its foremost promoter. While Gilpin was very skilled at describing a post-Enlightenment preference for “the rough, varied and irregular forms of nature” instead of the strict lines and right angles of the earlier eighteenth century, he was also very often ridiculous. In his Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales... Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1770), Gilpin famously suggested that some of the straighter and more regular “gabel-ends” of Tintern Abbey could benefit from some aesthetic alteration: “A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them”.
By 1809, when the artist Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) and the writer William Combe (1742–1823) co-created the character of Doctor Syntax, the concept of the picturesque was ripe for satire. Syntax, like Gilpin, is an artist, cleric, and schoolmaster who decides to make his fortune by traveling to quaint locales and then drawing and describing them for publication — a sort of aesthete Quixote who rides around on an old mare called Grizzle.