This unusual informal group portrait, or 'conversation piece', represents Dr John Clayton (1709-73), founder of Salford Grammar School, with ten of his pupils and a fellow teacher, at the end of their school term. Dr Clayton stands at the far left of the picture, at the entrance to his school, in his wig and blue velvet gown. In his hand he holds a scroll, containing a Latin quotation from the classical poet Horace (65-8 BC): 'Nunc adbibe puro | Pectore Verba Puer' ('Now drink in these Words with a pure heart, boy). Before Dr Clayton is a group of boys, one of whom is about to read from a book. To the right of the picture another master, dressed in a pink gown, is seated beneath a tree, surrounded by three boys, all holding books. The identity of the second master has not been confirmed, although it has been suggested that it is Dr John Byrom (1692-1763), a friend and fellow townsman of Clayton, who shared his religious and political affiliations.
Dr Clayton, who was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University, founded his own school, then called St Cyprian's, in about 1735. Clayton was a supporter of the traditional Anglican High Church and a fervent Jacobite sympathiser, and it was to like-minded wealthy members of the local community that his school was intended to appeal. It was set up to compete with the existing Manchester Grammar School, which Clayton considered to be lacking in academic rigour and religious education. The school closed on Clayton's death in 1773.
The picture has an air of informality, typified by the pupil straddling the school wall to pick honeysuckle, and the various activities of boys playing games in the distant school grounds. However, the composition is carefully organized around the ritual of public recitation, which was an important aspect of the school curriculum for both masters and pupils. Dr Byrom, for example, wrote a number of poems for Manchester Grammar School, intended specifically for public recitation. One such poem, entitled 'Three Black Crows', is described as being 'Spoken at the Free Grammar School Manchester, On the Commencement of a Vacation'. Significantly, there also exists a version of the poem adapted to make it suitable for recitation at Salford.
Arthur Devis, who was only identified as the painter of the present picture during the 1970s, was born in 1712 in Preston, Lancashire, where he built up a network of patrons among the gentry and professional classes. In 1742 he moved to London, although he retained a strong client base in the north of England. Unable to adjust his style to the demands of a new generation of clients, Devis's business declined in the 1760s. In 1783 he retired to Brighton, where he died four years later. His sons, Thomas Anthony Devis (1757-1811) and Arthur William Devis (1762-1822) both trained as artists.
The picture descended through the family of John Byrom, until it was presented to Manchester Grammar School in 1946-7. It was sold by the School at auction in 1975, and purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1980.
The Tate Gallery 1980-82. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1984, pp.17-18
Steven V. Sartin, Polite Society by Arthur Devis 1712-1787. Portraits of the English Country Gentleman and his Family, exhibition catalogue, The Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston and the National Portrait Gallery, London 1984, pp.42-3, no.9, reproduced in colour