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.