Hoots from the Archive - Dr. Clayton and his School

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 20 Jun 2024

Arthur Devis

When MGS was first founded in the early sixteenth century, it was the only school of its kind in the area. The nearest "rival" would have been Stockport Grammar School (founded 1487), although in a time of limited mobility, this would not have been seen as local. However, one notable contender was founded by an Old Mancunian in 1735. Known formally as St. Cyprians, it was known locally as Salford Grammar School. The School did not last beyond Clayton's lifetime, closing after his death in 1773.

Despite the short-lived nature of Dr. Clayton's School, it was to play an important part in the history of MGS in the twentieth century. A painting by Arthur Devis, entitled "Breaking up at Dr. Clayton's School at Salford", had been given to the School by the Byrom family in 1935. It had hung for years in the Refectory but was discovered to be more valuable than first thought in the 1970s. The Governors decided the cost of insuring it would be prohibitive and that it would make sense to sell the painting. Ulula reported that the proceeds would "be used to provide fuds for fee remissions when the direct grant is removed." The painting was auctioned at Christie's and sold for £25200, with some of the proceeds subsequently also used to fund the building of the music block.

The provenance and history of the painting, along with further information on Dr. Clayton was researched and written by art teacher John Bell, and published in the 1976 edition of Ulula which is reproduced below:

The Reverend John Clayton was educated at The Manchester Grammar School and Brasenose College Oxford. He became a chaplain in Manchester in 1732 and three years later he founded a school in Salford. This catered for the sons of well-to-do High Church Tories who feared the social and religious contamination that their children might be exposed to if they attended MGS. He called his school St Cyprian's though it was more commonly referred to as Salford Grammar School. St Cyprian was the patron saint of the High Church clergy, symbolising the importance they attached to the writings of the Early Fathers.

In 1740 Clayton became a chaplain at the Collegiate Church, now the Cathedral, thus joining the group that were at the head of the Jacobite movement in Manchester. He turned out with his pupils to cheer the Young Pretender in the streets of Salford and he preached a welcoming sermon in the Collegiate Church. For their active military part in the '45 two of his old boys were later executed.

A powerful supporter of Jacobite opinion was John Byrom, the younger son of a prosperous merchant whose family home was Kersal Cell in Salford. John was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Trinity College Cambridge. He studied medicine but never practised it, became a Fellow of his College and a Member of the Royal Society. He travelled abroad a great deal, possibly as a Jacobite agent. It is, however, for two very disparate achievements that we mainly remember him, writing 'Christians awake!' and inventing shorthand. When his son Edward was old enough, it was only natural that he should attend Dr. Clayton's school.

In about 1738 Arthur Devis was commissioned to paint a large conversation piece of 'Breaking-up day at Dr. Clayton's school'. In the left foreground sits little Edward Byrom, cross-legged. The boy grew up to inherit the family wealth. With part of it he founded St John's Church and his old headmaster came along to preach the dedication sermon. The church has gone. Only the street and square of the same name survive, together with Byrom Street. Clayton died in 1773 and his school died with him, but for many years his memory was perpetuated by the Cyprianites, a dining club formed by his old pupils. It was in to this Tory society that the Whig Old Mancunian Dinners were started by Sir Thomas Egerton Bart, in 1781.

Meanwhile Devis's painting had gone to the Byrom family home at Kersal Cell. There it remained until 1870 when Miss Atherton, the last of the Byroms, died. Her estate passed to her godson, Edward Fox, who assumed the name of Byrom as a condition of inheriting. At some subsequent date the picture went to Exeter, as a restorer's label on the back indicates, and later still it arrived, we knew not how, in MGS.

So far I have summarised the information available to us in March 1973, when research into the picture's history seemed to come to a standstill. The original suggestion that it might well be the work of Devis had been upheld by two experts and it became overnight a potentially valuable work of art. Remembering that it had previously hung in the Refectory and the Junior Common Room and had even been on the stage with the 'Pedagogues' we shuddered a little when a five figure value was suggested to us! At this stage there was no doubt about its authorship, its subject and two thirds of its history. The question remained of how it reached MGS and who owned it.

The answer came from a local historian, Mrs Hancox of Salford, who was researching into the history of the Byrom family. She showed us their family tree and the particulars of some Byrom inheritances since 1870. Mr G I S Bailey had already gathered some information about the Atherton will and between them they solved the problem. One of the names on the family tree was that of Lady James of Rusholme. The painting had been presented to MGS in about 1946-7 by her great aunt Mrs. Rose Eden. The provenance now complete, the picture was cleaned, restored and locked away in safety. At Christie's, on the 21st March 1975, it was sold for £25,000 and retired once more into obscurity, the property of an anonymous buyer.

Arthur Devis was a Preston man born in 1711. He made a good living in the north west, painting small portraits and conversation pieces of the middle classes. They pose in their drawing rooms or among their rolling acres, rather doll-like figures in their elegant clothes. In 1743 he moved to London and enjoyed further success. His work is to be found in several southern country houses, notably Uppark in Sussex. The largest collection of his work is in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery at Preston. It is only appropriate—and an established fact—that the painter of our Jacobite picture bore an astonishing likeness to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

We should like to record with gratitude the names of the two experts who confirmed the first tentative attribution, Miss Gillian Tressider of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the late Mr Arnold Hyde of Didsbury. Although the sale came two months after his death, Mr Hyde lived long enough to know that Christie's had accepted the picture with enthusiasm. It was one of the last of many problems of art history which he so dearly loved to solve.

In 1980, the painting was sold to the Tate Gallery and more information can be found on their website, though it is not currently on display.

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1 Like Posted one month ago

Immediately prior to its discovery, the painting hung in the common room of the Sixth Form Block, where, as I can remember telling a horrified Mr Bell, we had been using it for target practice with a football. Many years later I saw a painting in a gallery in Pittsburg, PA, which looked oddly familiar. The catalogue notes confirmed that it was another Arthur Devis, but there was nothing to say how it had crossed the Atlantic. 

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