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John Kay (1742 – 1826) was a self-taught artist and engraver who had come to Edinburgh in 1762 as a young man to work as a barber and hairdresser. However, in 1784, following the death of his wife, he abandoned his craft and for the next 38 years he sketched and engraved his contemporaries. His undoubted talents were much admired by his contemporaries including William Creech who commissioned Kay to draw Deacon Brodie for the book that he published of Brodie’s 1788 trial. Some 329 of Kay’s engravings, with accompanying notes, were published posthumously as Kay’s Portraits in 1837 by his friend Hugh Paton.

This remarkable man has left us images of intellectual giants of the day and notable eccentrics. Kay also drew some of well-known visitors including the actress Sarah Siddons, the balloonist Vincent Lunardi and the antiquarian Francis Grose as well as a host of colourful characters who walked past his workshop behind St Giles in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square.

Drawing from Kay’s work and from contemporary sources, this illustrated talk will tell the story of the artist of the Golden Age.

Eric Melvin is our speaker. Eric graduated with First Class Honours in History and Political Thought from Edinburgh University in 1967. He qualified as a secondary teacher of History and Modern Studies at the then Moray House College of Education gaining a Dip. Ed. in the process and the Staff Prize. Eric later gained an M.Ed. from the University of Edinburgh. He retired from teaching in 2005, working latterly for the City of Edinburgh Council as Headteacher at Currie Community High School. Eric has had several books published by John Murray for younger readers on aspects of Scottish History as well as ‘Discovering Scotland’ for Ladybird. Most recently Eric has had two books published on Amazon – ‘A Walk Down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile’, ‘A Walk Through Edinburgh’s New Town’ and ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, self-published and written for younger readers and illustrated by Aileen Paterson. ‘The Edinburgh of John Kay’ was published in 2017 and Eric has just finished a book about Duncan Napier (The Fresh Air of the Summer Morning), the founder of the famous Edinburgh Herbalist business in 1860.


This is one of a series of talks being delivered jointly by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides (EFVGA). This is a new venture. The EFVGA has been offering free Royal Mile Festival walks since 1947. More information about the EFVGA can be found on their web site -

John Kay: Recording the Golden Age in Edinburgh