The Manchester Murals

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Ford Madox Brown, painter of The Manchester Murals Ford madox brown.jpg
Ford Madox Brown, painter of The Manchester Murals

The Manchester Murals are a series of twelve paintings by Ford Madox Brown in the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall and are based on the history of Manchester. Following the success of Brown's painting Work he was commissioned to paint six murals for its Great Hall. Another six murals were to be completed by Frederic Shields who later withdrew, leaving Brown to complete all twelve works. The murals were begun in 1879, towards the end of Brown's career, but were not completed until 1893, the year he died. During this period he moved from London to Manchester with his family, first living in Crumpsall and then Victoria Park.

Ford Madox Brown 19th-century English painter

Ford Madox Brown was a French-born British painter of moral and historical subjects, notable for his distinctively graphic and often Hogarthian version of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Arguably, his most notable painting was Work (1852–1865). Brown spent the latter years of his life painting the twelve works known as The Manchester Murals, depicting Mancunian history, for Manchester Town Hall.

Manchester Town Hall municipal building in Manchester, England

Manchester Town Hall is a Victorian, Neo-gothic municipal building in Manchester, England. It is the ceremonial headquarters of Manchester City Council and houses a number of local government departments. The building faces Albert Square to the north and St Peter's Square to the south, with Manchester Cenotaph facing its southern entrance.

History of Manchester

The history of Manchester encompasses its change from a minor Lancastrian township into the pre-eminent industrial metropolis of the United Kingdom and the world. Manchester began expanding "at an astonishing rate" around the turn of the 19th century as part of a process of unplanned urbanisation brought on by a boom in textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution. The transformation took little more than a century.



The twelve murals are located on opposite walls in the Great Hall. Manchester Town Hall, Great Hall.jpg
The twelve murals are located on opposite walls in the Great Hall.

The murals form part of the decoration of the Great Hall, the central room designed by Alfred Waterhouse. [1] On entering the hall, six murals are on the left hand wall and six on the right, progressing chronologically from the left wall nearest the entrance to the right wall opposite, repeating the basic structure of the scheme of William Bell Scott's murals on the history of Northumbria in Wallington Hall.

Alfred Waterhouse British architect

Alfred Waterhouse was an English architect, particularly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. He is perhaps best known for his design for Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London, although he also built a wide variety of other buildings throughout the country. Financially speaking, Waterhouse was probably the most successful of all Victorian architects. Though expert within Neo-Gothic, Renaissance revival and Romanesque revival styles, Waterhouse never limited himself to a single architectural style.

William Bell Scott British artist

William Bell Scott was a Scottish artist in oils and watercolour and occasionally printmaking. He was also a poet and art teacher, and his posthumously published reminiscences give a chatty and often vivid picture of life in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelites; he was especially close to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After growing up in Edinburgh, he moved to London, and from 1843 to 1864 was principal of the government School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he added industrial subjects to his repertoire of landscapes and history painting. He was one of the first British artists to extensively depict the processes of the Industrial Revolution. He returned to London, working for the Science and Art Department until 1885.

Wallington Hall Grade I listed historic house museum in the United Kingdom

Wallington is a country house and gardens located about 12 miles (19 km) west of Morpeth, Northumberland, England, near the village of Cambo. It has been owned by the National Trust since 1942, after it was donated complete with the estate and farms by Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, the first donation of its kind. It is a Grade I listed building.

Subjects and meaning

The subjects chosen reflect the Victorian ideals through which the history of Manchester was seen, focusing on Christianity, commerce and the textile industry. The artist did a great deal of research to check the details for accuracy and he wrote their descriptions.

Recent commentators have identified satirical and critical features in the compositions which complicate any simple explanation of the paintings as expressions of "Victorian ideals" that the chosen subjects imply. The art historian Julie F. Codell refers to these as the "pratfalls and penultimates" of history, as opposed to its stately progress. [2]

Most of the paintings contain Hogarthian satire (in contrast to Bell Scott's works). In the first picture the wife of the Roman general wearing a blond wig distracts him from his work; their son – a Caligula in the making – kicks an African servant. The painting that seems to celebrate industrial technology, John Kay: Inventor of the Fly Shuttle, depicts the hysterical inventor fleeing from an unruly mob which is bent on destroying the machine. Instead of culminating in the achievement of modern Manchester, the sequence concludes with a rustic scene in a small village. According to Codell, history is portrayed as fragmented, contested, and as ending in a "penultimate" moment. This may be related to Brown's interest in anarchism and William Morris's utopian socialism at the time, but it also arises from disputes about the more modern subjects. Paintings depicting the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and the end of the Lancashire Cotton Famine in 1865 had been proposed, but were rejected by the council's committee as too controversial.

William Morris Textile designer, novelist, and socialist activist (1834–1896)

William Morris was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he played a significant role propagating the early socialist movement in Britain.

Utopian socialism is a label used to define the first currents of modern socialist thought as exemplified by the work of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet and Robert Owen.

Peterloo Massacre Massacre of protesters in 1819

The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter's Field, Manchester, Lancashire, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 who had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.


All but the last four murals were painted directly on to the wall. They were not created using the true fresco process but taking advantage of a Victorian technique, the Gambier Parry process, which was "spirit" based producing a more hard-wearing image. Brown completed the last four murals on canvas, after he had returned to live in London.

Fresco Mural painting upon freshly laid lime plaster

Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid, or wet lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the dry-powder pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. The word fresco is derived from the Italian adjective fresco meaning "fresh", and may thus be contrasted with fresco-secco or secco mural painting techniques, which are applied to dried plaster, to supplement painting in fresco. The fresco technique has been employed since antiquity and is closely associated with Italian Renaissance painting.

Gambier Parry process

The Gambier Parry process is a development of the classical technique of fresco for painting murals, named for Thomas Gambier Parry.

Alcohol any organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group (–OH) is bound to a saturated carbon atom

In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group (–OH) is bound to a carbon. The term alcohol originally referred to the primary alcohol ethanol, which is used as a drug and is the main alcohol present in alcoholic beverages. An important class of alcohols, of which methanol and ethanol are the simplest members, includes all compounds for which the general formula is CnH2n+1OH. It is these simple monoalcohols that are the subject of this article.


BrownManchesterMuralRomans.jpg The Romans Building a Fort at Mancenion
The mural depicts the building of a Roman fort by enslaved Britons while a Roman general gives the orders. The fort, now known as Mamucium , was at what is now the area of Castlefield, near the centre of Manchester.
BrownManchesterMuralEdwin.jpg The Baptism of Edwin
The mural depicts the baptism of Edwin of Northumbria, who was also king of Deira which included the Manchester area, at York, watched by his Christian wife Ethelburga and family.
BrownManchesterMuralDanes.jpg The Expulsion of the Danes from Manchester
The mural depicts the retreat of the Danes from Manchester – showing soldiers carrying their general on a stretcher.
BrownManchesterMuralFlemish.jpg The Establishment of Flemish Weavers in Manchester A.D. 1363
Queen Philippa of Hainault greets Flemish weavers who were invited to England under Edward III of England's act of 1337.
BrownManchesterMuralWyclif.jpg The Trial of Wycliffe A.D. 1377

John Wycliffe is depicted on trial, defended by his patron, John of Gaunt. Geoffrey Chaucer, another protégé of Gaunt's, acts as recorder.

BrownManchesterMuralProclamation.jpg The Proclamation regarding Weights and Measures A.D. 1556
In 1556, Manchester's Court passed an edict directing that "The Burgess and others of the Town of Manchester shall send in all manner of Weights and Measures to be tried by their Majesties standard."
BrownManchesterMuralCrabtree.jpg Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus A.D. 1639
William Crabtree, a draper who lived in Broughton, was asked by a curate friend, Jeremiah Horrocks, to observe the Transit of Venus, on 24 November 1639. Crabtree's diligence and rigour enabled him to correct Horrocks' faulty calculations and to observe the transit on 4 December.
BrownManchesterMuralChetham.jpg Chetham's Life's Dream A.D. 1640
The mural depicts merchant philanthropist Humphrey Chetham's dream of the charity school for poor boys founded in his will of 1653, which became Chetham's School of Music in 1969. Chetham is portrayed studying his will to the right of the painting.
BrownManchesterMuralBradshaw.jpg Bradshaw's Defence of Manchester A.D. 1642
During the English Civil War, Manchester was besieged by Royalist troops under the command of Lord Strange. It was, however, John Rosworm, not John Bradshaw as depicted, who defended the town.

Ths was the last of the paintings to be completed. It is not strictly a mural, since Brown was by this time too frail to work in the hall. It was painted on canvas and adhered to the wall.

BrownManchesterMuralJohnKay.jpg John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle A.D. 1753
The invention, by John Kay, of the flying shuttle revolutionised weaving. The mural depicts rioters, who feared their jobs were in danger, breaking in to destroy the loom, while Kay is being smuggled to safety.
BrownManchesterMuralBridgewater.jpg The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal A.D. 1761
The 3rd Duke of Bridgewater owned coal mines in Worsley, and collaborated with engineer James Brindley to build the Bridgewater Canal to carry coal into Manchester. The Duke is shown standing on a barge decorated with flags of his coat of arms, observing the launch of the first coal barges on his new canal. He is accompanied by Brindley and the Earl and Countess of Stamford. [3]
BrownManchesterMuralDalton.jpg Dalton collecting Marsh-Fire Gas
The mural depicts the scientist John Dalton collecting gases. His studies led to the development of atomic theory.

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  1. Art and Architecture in Victorian Manchester, John G. Archer (ed.) xxi + 290 pp., Manchester University Press; Manchester Town Hall
  2. Codell, Julie F., "Ford Madox Brown, Carlyle, Macaulay and Bakhtin: The Pratfalls and Penultimates of History", Art History, Volume 21, Number 3, September 1998, pp. 324–366(43). See also, Ellen Harding, ed., Reframing the Pre-Raphaelites: Historical and Theoretical Essays. Scolar Press, 1998.
  3. Treuherz, Julian (2011). Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. Manchester City Art Gallery/Philip Wilson Publishers. pp. 304–305. ISBN   9780856677007 . Retrieved 26 June 2019.