EXHIBITIONS / Moores the merrier, but for how long?: The winner of the John Moores prize has been announced. The only thing now in doubt is the future of the prize itself

LET'S SUPPOSE you're a historian who wants to look at the progress of recent British art. Lots of ways of doing it, but one way to start might be to trace the fortunes of the country's biggest painting prize, the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition, a biannual that began in 1957 and has now opened its 18th version - I hope not the last - in its traditional home in the Walker Art Gallery.

Moores, who founded Littlewood's Pools, was an instinctive populist and a proud Liverpudlian. He was also a rather good amateur artist and felt frustrated that his efforts on canvas weren't seen by other people. He thought that many other painters, especially in the provinces, were hindered in the same way. So he offered to finance a send-in exhibition, with substantial but not extravagant prize money, to be held in his home town. The first prize picture would become the property of the Walker, many people would show their work, perhaps sell it too, and the whole occasion would celebrate contemporary art in whatever form it might take.

The populist was right. The John Moores Exhibition became extremely popular with artists from all over the country, and still is. It's the only art prize that has both the respect and affection of artists. Long may it remain so. Having seen numerous Moores exhibitions and done my time on a jury I'm a fan too. The system isn't perfect. Every year duds get in and good paintings are thrown out. When four people have to choose from a send-in of around 2,000 there are bound to be mishaps. But I don't think artists feel too resentful if their paintings are returned. My experience is that the Moores is a generally happy occasion.

The judges are always told that their task is to make an exhibition rather than to award prizes. In practice you can't make a coherent show. Not only is the material so varied: the judges are too. The Walker cunningly selects them to represent different and often irreconcilable tastes. So the exhibition is always a mixture - sometimes gloriously mixed, often a maddening jumble. This year's show looks solid to me: better than the last, not so good as the 1988 version. But that was my year as a judge . . .

Do the prizewinners reflect the mood of the year?

On the whole, yes. The inaugural Moores was won by Jack Smith, with another prize for John Bratby in the junior section (a category which was abandoned after 1965). This was appropriate at the height of kitchen-sink realism. Patrick Heron won in 1959. Then Henry Mundy in 1961 and Roger Hilton in 1963 became part of the colourful painting characteristic of the new decade. Michael Tyzack won in 1965 with a minimal colour-field picture, then Pop came in with David Hockney (1967) and Richard Hamilton (1969) before the return of Slade-school-of-Euston-Roadish figuration with Euan Uglow (1972) and Myles Murphy (1974).

The Seventies were difficult years for painting since conceptual art seemed to hold the field. But there were splendid prizewinners, all abstract artists, in John Walker (1976), Noel Forster (1978), Mick Moon (1980) and John Hoyland (1982). But here was a danger. A sort of standard Moores prizewinner had become predictable. It would be large, amply proportioned, handsome, almost over-serious and always painted by a man. A reaction was bound to follow.

Some recent prizewinners are in a gallery near this year's show. See how Bruce McLean's picture (1985) cheekily imitates the pomp of painterly abstraction, and how serious art is parodied by Tim Head (1987) with his repeated patterns of a cow's head. Pattern was there again in Lisa Milroy's year, 1989, significant because she was the first woman to take the top prize. Finally there's Andrzej Jackowski's 1991 winner, a figurative painting that seems to have been done in a dream. What could come after that? Well, Peter Doig has walked away with the pounds 20,000 purchase prize and left his picture for the Walker walls. It's a likeable work and I suspect many Liverpool children will grow up with loving memories of a painting about the distance between childhood and adult life. Doig took a photo of his brother standing on an ice-covered pond, but not before he'd realised this would be more effective if he swilled fresh water around the feet. He then painted from this motif. The photographic origin, as so often, is apparent in the completed painting.

Less apparent, though surely potent, is a connection with a children's book illustration of three-quarters of a century ago. This is not to say that Doig is smart or knowing about his references. Other of his paintings hit the mark, though also done via photography, through a quite unaffected and almost innocent jump at the subject. It may be relevant that Doig (born 1959) is a Canadian. His palette is neither European nor American. The touch is funny. He paints as though in wonderment that there is this stuff called paint. Doig is a happy and instinctive artist whose picture has a deep charm: unlike charm, it settles in the mind.

This year the 10 subsidiary prizes were aimlessly scattered, but I'm not complaining. The Moores has a way of celebrating luck as well as talent. The show was judged by Andrew Brighton, Paul Huxley, Catherine Lampert and Julian Treuhertz. I know some of the artists they've excluded so can report that there's a tendency away from abstract painting, just as there was in 1991. A prejudice of this particular jury? I would not have thought so, given Huxley's presence. He is himself an abstract painter. But he is also a professor at the Royal College of Art and this may explain why so many RCA graduates are showing this year.

Women artists show strongly. I'd have given a prize to Rosa Lee for her pungent and moody kind of decoration. Vanessa Jackson, a prizewinner, has a straightforward block-built picture whose success depends on the force and confidence of its artist. These qualities Jackson possesses. Jane Harris's delicate black painting suffers by its position next to Doig's much bigger picture, but must not be overlooked. Good to see a painting by Elizabeth Vellacott (born 1905), the oldest exhibitor by far.

Prize for the longest title went to Paula Macarthur's Hourglass, Blue-Eyed, Bottle Blonde (Woman) Loves Art Cinema, Glamour, Seeks Funny (Male) Valentine for Laughs and Love. Photo Please. Her work is based on the snaps received after placing this advert. The duped suitors have their faces painted over in different ways, mainly by smurring in high-key acrylic. Not original, either as pictorial idea or social comment, but in an unintended way Macarthur fits into one of the functions of the Moores, which is precisely to introduce people to each other.

That is, not necessarily to 'discover' them and send them to London and subsequent success. There are good artists who turn up at the Moores and hardly anywhere else and painters who know of each other's existence only through this genial exhibition. None the less I should mention artists who may be prominent soon. Young Ben Cook is one, China-born Gang Chen another, David Howell a third. And of course there are the old lags. How many Moores exhibitions has Adrian Henri been in? The show wouldn't be complete without this unofficial mayor of Liverpool. Adrian Berg is working as well as ever, John Bellany and Graham Crowley have sent more convincing canvases than they have recently presented in London.

Of abstract artists, I was impressed by Simon Callery's cool and thoughtful picture, but wish he wouldn't look so wistful. Callum Innes has been winning prizes all over the world this year so he won't mind missing one in Liverpool. It's a pity that his intense and personal painting doesn't hang well in company. An intriguing painting is by Michael Ginsborg. It seems unfinished, but that may be because he is - at last - starting a new painterly life. Good for him, but I'm not sure that the exhibition as a whole points toward the future. Some people will say that it's run out of steam, for there is no overwhelming thrust to its character.

John Moores died a month ago. The future of his exhibition is therefore all the more precarious. His family now funds only a third of the show's expenses and the Walker may not be able to continue to support it. From afar, it has been suggested that the Moores should be entrusted to the Liverpool Tate Gallery. Nobody with a close feeling for the show wants this. One reason is simple: the Turner Prize, which is disliked as much as the Moores is loved. This shows how great the gulf is between the hundreds of people who work away at painting, with no hope of recognition or even covering their costs, and the coterie of dealers and trendy administrators who give us the annual farce on Millbank. I think the Arts Council should guarantee the future of the Moores. In its own way it's a great national treasure.

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (051-207 0001) to 23 Jan.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory