Arthur Devis

Breaking-Up Day at Dr Clayton’s School at Salford


Not on display

Arthur Devis 1711–1787
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1207 × 1746 mm
Purchased 1980


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.

Further reading:

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

Martin Postle
June 2001

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Display caption

This informal group portrait, or conversation piece’, shows Dr John Clayton, founder of Salford Grammar School, with a fellow teacher and ten of their pupils at the end of their school term. Dr Clayton stands, as if on a stage set, at the entrance to his school. In his hand he holds a scroll, containing a Latin quotation from the classical poet Horace, which can be translated as ‘Now drink in these Words with a pure heart, boy’. While some of the boys recite verses especially written for the end of term, others are already engaged in sports and various high jinks.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry



Inscribed ‘-Nunc adbibe puro/Pectore Verba Puer-’ on scroll held by Dr Clayton. A now illegible inscription was on the cartouche on the wall to the left of him
Oil on canvas, 47 3/8 × 68 1/8 (120.5 × 174.5)
Purchased from Mr Paul Anstee (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Prov: Presumably in the Byrom family since painted; by descent to Miss Eleonora Atherton of Byrom, Kersall Cell and Manchester; on her death in 1870 willed to her godson Edward Vigor Fox (who adopted the name Byrom to qualify for the inheritance); thence by descent to his great-grand-daughter Rose Effie Jerardine Eden, who gave the picture to Manchester Grammar School 1946–7, a cousin of hers being the wife of Lord James of Rusholme, High Master of the School 1945–61; sold by the School at Christie's 21 March 1975 (58, repr.), bt Peters; Paul Anstee.
Exh: Preston, and National Portrait Gallery, London, 1983–4 (9, colour).
Lit: R. Parkinson (ed.), ‘The Private Journals and Literary Remains of John Byrom’ in The Chetham Society, 1855, 1, ii, p.509, no.1; Rev. F.R. Raines, ‘The Rectors of Manchester and the Wardens of the Collegiate Church’ in The Chetham Society, 1885, 11, p.172, and ‘The Fellows of Manchester’ in ditto, 1891, 11, pp.257, 266 and frontispiece; Dictionary of National Biography, 1908, for Clayton and Byrom;

A.A. Mumford, Manchester Grammar School 1515–1919, [1919], pp.160–2, 174, repr.; Frank Davis, ‘A School for Jacobites’ in Country Life, 24 April 1975, repr.p.1038; John H. Bell, ‘Breaking-Up Day at Dr. Clayton's School, Salford’ in Ulula (Manchester Grammar School Magazine), no.549, September 1976, pp.91–2, repr.; Ellen D'Oench, Arthur Devis, Master of the Georgian Conversation Piece, Yale Doctoral Thesis, 1979, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, 1983,, pp.298–9; Ellen D'Oench,, Devis, Yale, 1980 (33).

The picture is first mentioned as being at Kersall Cell, the seat of the Byrom family, by Parkinson (1855), who describes it as ‘representing the interior of his [Dr Clayton's] school in Salford and a full length portrait of Mr Clayton in a blue velvet gown lined with white silk, surrounded by his scholars’. Raines (1885) adds that one of the pupils is said to be Richard Assheton (1727–1800), later Warden of Manchester. Later still Raines (1891) repeats a tradition that Clayton is shown ‘hearing the boys recite their pieces, previous to the breaking up for the holidays’, that the boy seated on the steps, fiddling with a top, is Edward Byrom (1724–1774), son of the poet and stenographer Dr John Byrom (who is known to have been a pupil of Clayton's School), and that the boy standing before Clayton is reciting Byrom's poem ‘The Three Black Crows’. Apart from that he admits that the identities have been lost.

In spite of this paucity of documented material on the picture to date, there can be little doubt that the basic identification is correct, and that it does indeed represent Dr John Clayton (1709–1773) and ten of his pupils. A waist-length portrait of Clayton reproduced as a frontis-piece to Raines' ‘Fellows of Manchester’ (1891) is quite compatible with this as a likeness. Although unattributed, judging from the photograph it is quite likely to be also by Devis. The identity of the man in a pink gown seated under the tree is unknown, but in view of the provenance of the painting, it could be Dr John Byrom (1692–1763) himself, who inherited Kersall Cell from his brother in 1740, and who shared his friend Clayton's Jacobite and High Church views.

The recitation of poems by both masters and pupils was part of the usual training for public declamation, and Byrom wrote several poems for this purpose for the Manchester Grammar School, of which he was a trustee. One of them, ‘Three Black Crows’ - a slapstick fable on the dangers of propagating unfounded rumours - was ‘Spoken at the Free Grammar School Manchester, On the Commencement of a Vacation’ (Byrom's Poems, Leeds, 1814, 1, p.31). Mrs J.E. Hancox of Salford has kindly pointed out to the compiler that a version of this poem exists (in the 1894 edition of Byrom's works) where references to the Manchester School have been slightly altered to make it suitable for recitation at Salford.

Dr John Clayton founded his school, called St Cyprian's, but better known as Salford Grammar School, in about 1735, for the sons of well-to-do local families with Jacobite leanings, who desired a more religious and exclusive atmosphere than that which prevailed at the more lax Manchester Grammar School. Clayton's School closed on his death in 1773, but his pupils continued to meet as the Cyprianites' dining club for many years. They also paid for a handsome memorial in Manchester Cathedral for their master, whom they appear to have held in great affection.

The painting, which went unrecognised as a Devis until recently, is one of his largest and most ambitious works. It is also an unusual elaboration of the conversation piece format to meet the challenge of a subject that requires both indoor and outdoor treatment. Originally one would have started reading the composition from the left-hand side, with the notice - still showing traces of a now illegible script - affixed to the wall, which probably described the scene and occasion. The scroll in Dr Clayton's hand, with a quotation from Horace's ‘Exhortation to the young Lollius’ - ‘Now drink in these Words with a pure heart, boy ...’ (Epistles, 1, ep.2, 1.67, translation kindly supplied by Fabia Egerton) - sets the tone for this part of the picture, with the Doctor, severely framed by the window, standing in an extremely well-appointed school-room, surrounded by attentive pupils. Clayton is known to have recommended Horace as suitable reading for ‘the afternoon's amusement’ (Raines, 1891, p.258). Appropriately, the sundial high up on the cornice of this entirely fanciful and theatrical structure stands at four o'clock, and the boys spill out of the class-room into the outdoors in progressively more relaxed holiday mood. A boy sitting astride the balustrade (his legs have been extensively repainted by the artist and the original red breeches are now visible through the overpaint) is picking honeysuckle from the wall and putting it into the hat held out by the boy below. On the meadow below the terrace other boys can be seen skipping, fishing, practising archery, flying a kite or just strolling around arm-in-arm, all details which incline one to accept the tradition that the painting is indeed the representation of the commencement of a holiday.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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