The Manchester Murals

The Manchester Murals
Ford Madox Brown, painter of the Manchester Murals

The Manchester Murals are a series of twelve paintings by Ford Madox Brown on the history of Manchester, England in Manchester Town Hall. Following the success of Brown's painting Work he was commissioned to paint six murals for the Great Hall of the new building. Another six murals were to be completed by a local artist, Frederic Shields. Shields eventually 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 at Crumpsall and then at Victoria Park.



Manchester Town Hall

The murals were intended to form part of the decoration of the Great Hall, the central room in the new town hall designed by Alfred Waterhouse.[1] Entering the room, the first six murals are on the left hand wall; the second six are on the right hand wall. They progress chronologically from the left wall nearest the entrance to the right wall opposite. This basic scheme repeats that of William Bell Scott's murals on the history of Northumbria in Wallington Hall.

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. Brown did a great deal of research to check the details for accuracy and he wrote the descriptions himself.

Recent commentators on the murals have identified satirical and critical features in the compositions which complicate any simple explanation of the paintings as expressions of the "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. However, 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 both were rejected by the council's committee as too controversial.


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 being "spirit" based produced a more hard wearing image. Brown completed the last four murals on canvas, after he had returned to London.


Image Description
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 region where Manchester is located, 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 protegé 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 at 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 eventually founded in his will of 1653, which was converted into the present 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 laid under siege 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 itself. 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 Earl of Bridgewater owned coal mines in Worsley , and collaborated with engineer James Brindley to build the Bridgewater Canal to carry coal into the heart of Manchester.
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.


  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.

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