Review: John Moores prizewinners at Walker Art Gallery

Review: John Moores prizewinners
at Walker Art Gallery, From 16th December 2017, until ??

Words, Carol Emmas

Sixty years of the John Moores Painting prize can certainly be heralded as an achievement. Having launched, established and cemented the reputation of many of the UK’s top contemporary painters, it has done so by always adhering closely to its founding principles. However, only when we view the paintings retrospectively and together can we see how this sentiment has given the show a remarkable consistency, fluidity and thread.

Held in conjunction with the Liverpool Biennial (and in partnership with National Museums Liverpool and the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust), the prize is awarded to UK-based painters. Works are selected by the jury anonymously from an open submission. This makes the judges’ choice more of a challenge and offers a non-subjective level playing field. It means the virtually unknown artist can have the kudos attached from being accepted into the show. It also means there is a chance for any artist to hit the big time and take home £25,000.

Although, it is rare the winner is an unknown. Rose Wylie’s work is unmistakable (art critic Brian Sewell describe her work as, “a daub worthy of a child of four”), so it wouldn’t take much to recognise her very distinctive signature style, likewise others. Wylie had been on the upward trajectory for a while, but it had taken until she was in her 70s for her work to begin to be seriously snapped up by the canny collector. It could only but help when in 2014 she won the prize at 80-years-old with PV Windows and Floorboards. An ironically quirky depiction of an art gallery private view.

Every so often, I specifically visit the Walker solely to visit Blotter, Peter Doig. An artist I have followed closely since his win in 1993. The John Moores painting prize gave Doig’s career a substantial leg up just when he financially needed it most. Fast-forward a decade or so later his painting White Canoe, sold at Sotheby’s for $11.3 million and topped the art auction sales record for a living European artist.


Bringing the artworks together from 1957 onwards for this anniversary display, shows how innovative and forward thinking the judges have been, and are; March 1963, Roger Hilton (1963), Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, David Hockney (1967), Cross, Mary Martin (1969), Broken Bride, John Hoyland (1985) and Cow Mutations,Tim Head (1987) etc, show a solid narrative of contemporary British art that remains as contemporary today as ever. The paintings don’t date. There is also thread of; sensitivity, humour, playfulness and the encompassing zeitgeist of the day running through all the winners’ work. There are many complementary pieces too, such as;Stevie Smith and the Willow, Sarah Pickstone (2011) perfectly complements Oriental Garden, Kyoto, Bruce McLean (1985), despite an artistic gap of 20+ years. The 2016 winner; Michael Simpson, Squint also is neatly symbiotic to the artistic style of Dan Hayes’, Harmony in Green (1997), also from almost 20 years previously.

In 2012, judge and TV Presenter, Alan Yentob championed the John Moores Painting Prize for remaining in Liverpool at the Walker. He said: “There has been a really interesting story over the last 10-15 years in that London is not the only place that art can be seen and enjoyed and Londoners are not the only people who should see it. The Walker is one of the great innovators and the John Moores Painting Prize was there before the Turner Prize. It is a very important and significant prize.”

While in total agreement, it would be even nicer if the John Moore’s Painting Prize had as big a bite of the national publicity apple as the Turner Prize religiously does.

Walker Art Gallery c. Dave Jones