Robin Guthrie entered the Slade School of Art in 1918 with the financial assistance of his patron, the collector Jakob de Graaf. His skilful draughtsmanship brought him to the attention of Henry Tonks (1862-1937), the school's principal, and in the summer of 1920 his painting Pastoral Scene with Figures (Slade School Collection) won first prize for composition. Guthrie completed his studies in the summer of 1922 and took a studio in a church hall on Parkhill Road, Hampstead, London, with his fellow student and friend Rodney Burn (1899-1984). Sermon on the Mount was painted during these months, either just before he left the Slade or just after. Although the depiction of religious and mythological subjects was encouraged at the Slade, Sermon on the Mount should be considered in relation to Jacob Epstein's Risen Christ 1919 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and within the wider proliferation of such imagery after the First World War (1914-8).
The subject of the painting is Christ's sermon to the faithful, as recounted in chapters five to seven of St Matthew's Gospel. Having been among the crowds, where He had healed the sick, Christ withdrew with His followers to a mountain near the Sea of Galilee, shown in the background. The sermon He gave expounds the central ethics of Christianity and represents a development of the Mosaic Law, which had been passed down by God at Mount Sinai to the Israelites. In the painting there seem to be several references to events leading upto the sermon and to the text of the sermon itself. The girl holding her crutches and the man unwrapping his bandages represent the sick he had healed before going up to the mount; the house on the beach and the one on top of the hill may represent the parable of the builders,
Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the flood came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended, and the floods came and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it' (St Matthew, chapter 7, verses 24-7)
In the painting, all the figures,except Christ, wear contemporary clothing, perhaps indicating the continued relevance of Christianity to the modern world, particularly in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-18). In this context, the olive tree, in the centre of the picture, may be read as a symbol of peace.
The figure of Christ is almost certainly a self portrait and the seated figure underneath the tree is probably the artist Thomas Monnington (1902-76), a contemporary at the Slade. As yet the other figures in the painting have not been identified, though it seems likely that they were friends or colleagues of Guthrie's.
A Centenary Exhibition: The Slade 1871-1971, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1971