Chetham's Life Dream. AD 1640. Completed 1863. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Oil on canvas (the first of the sequence to be painted in the studio and then attached to the wall, see Introduction to the Manchester Murals). Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image for a larger picture.]

Humphrey Chetham was a local cloth-merchant, banker and noted philanthropist, much celebrated in Manchester (see, for example, William Theed Jnr's monument to him in Manchester Cathedral). He is shown daydreaming in the garden of the cathedral when it was simply the collegiate church of St Mary, with his parchment will unfurled in his hands, imagining the happy boys who will enjoy and benefit from his legacy — which was to establish a school there for "forty healthy boys" (Ford 372). Brown has not neglected to put in the stern figure of the teacher, with a birch rod behind his back, but the children are going to be well fed: a butcher with his tray is hurrying in from the left, and the school cook, carrying a large bowl, is hailing him. These are not guesses: Ford Madox Ford, who was Brown's grandson, writes in his biography: "The school-cook is impatiently awaiting the butcher," adding, "The scholars are engaged in drilling, reading, leap-frog, wrestling, and a game called 'stools,' apparently the forerunner of cricket" (372). However, almost in the middle of the foreground are boys doing nothing much at all: eating an apple in the cleft of a tree, cuddling a kitten, and looking at a picture-book which Julian Treuherz identifies as Jack the Giant Killer (298). Brown had lost all three of his sons, one as a newborn, one in infancy, and another, his treasured prodigy and protégé Oliver, at the end of his teens. He was not about to spoil these imaginary pupils' schooldays. Brown did have two grandsons by his daughter Catherine. One was Ford Madox Ford himself, and the other was called Oliver — the latter served as a model for "one or more of the boys" here (Treuherz 298).

Perhaps because of illness (gout), perhaps because of the change of medium, this mural with its emphasis on charity and education is not thought to be as vigorously executed as the previous ones (see Treuherz 298 again), but the gnarled, spreading trees that Brown has added to the courtyard make very pleasing suggestions of protection, and the whole varied scene seems to reflect Herbert Spencer's ideas on education as a natural, enjoyable process in which children participate, rather than one to which they must passively submit. Since Brown himself had received very little formal schooling (see Ford 12), perhaps he was bound to share such a view.

Related Material


Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 25 April 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011.

Last modified 25 April 2012