James Edgar, Rev Thomas Guthrie, 1803 – 1973, Preacher and philanthropist, 1862

This painting depicts influential 19th Century churchman and social reformer Dr. Thomas Guthrie. He is shown on the street in the shadow of his Free St John's Church, at the top of Edinburgh's Lawnmarket, close to the overcrowded tenements of the ‘old town’.

Guthrie was an outspoken pioneer of education for poor children and a passionate opponent of alcohol abuse. The children grouped around him are likely to be potential pupils for the ‘Ragged School’ which he founded in the area, whilst the tavern behind him reminds us of the vices that these children might fall prey to.

This painting has been selected for the Parallel Lives 2 project because it proclaims Thomas Guthrie’s vision of Christian charity and social action as a cure for the conditions of the poor. How will the group respond to this message today?

Edgar’s portrait of Guthrie invites the participants to question current social policy in relation to communities and welfare, and to present their own solutions to these difficult issues. Find out more about Edgar's depiction of Rev. Thomas Guthrie in our Online Collection.

Where we live and who we are

The participants involved in group 3 are members of North Edinburgh’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and ‘MAMA Rag’ groups, who meet weekly at the Prentice Centre.

North Edinburgh is an area of massive redevelopment with some parts of the community suffering from neglect whilst other areas form part of a regenerated landscape.

Our project partner is North Edinburgh Arts (NEA) and participants in group 3 will use its space for some of the project sessions and for the display of the final exhibition, thus supporting the re-opening of their community-based art space.

What we have done

Led by artist Kevin Reid, the group were encouraged to explore their responses to the ideas represented in the Guthrie portrait. They visited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to view the painting and discuss images of Guthrie, and photographs of slum conditions in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the Victorian era.

The group’s discussions included subjects such as their own experiences of poverty, Guthrie’s acheivements, motives and morals and how disadvantaged children were, and are, cared for by the state and society.

Kevin has used these discussions as his source material to produce an installation which combines recorded participant interviews, with quasi-political sloganeering in the form of badges, t-shirts and ‘jaggy jerseys’.

The new work, Does Reform Reform You? is on show on the Balcony of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.