Later 20th century art in the Walker Art Gallery

The Fever Van|’, LS Lowry

The Walker Art Gallery served as the local food office between 1939 and 1950 - although even in those dark days it bought Lowry’s ‘Fever Van|’ in 1943 - and it re-opened to the public with no regular exhibition of contemporary art on a national basis. The Liverpool Academy exhibitions were held in the Gallery but these were strictly local - although a considerable number of paintings by significant Merseyside artists were acquired from them.

John Moores Liverpool Exhibition

In 1957 however thanks to the enlightened sponsorship of Sir John Moores the first John Moores Liverpool Exhibition was held with two not entirely compatible objectives as recorded in the first catalogue: ‘to give Merseyside the chance to see an exhibition of painting and sculpture embracing the best and most vital work being done today throughout the country’ and ‘to encourage contemporary artists, particularly the young and progressive’.

Sir John Moores was himself an amateur artist and he was particularly keen on this second aim; in the 1950s neither the London dealers nor the Royal Academy gave a warm welcome to progressive art however defined and the John Moores Exhibitions rapidly attained pre-eminence among advanced artists and art critics.

The jury was changed each year and included such distinguished figures in the early years as Sir John Rothenstein (1957), Sir Alan Bowness (1959), André Chastel (1959), Sir William Coldstream (1963) and Clement Greenberg (1965). Stylistic uniformity was thus avoided and each exhibition presented a new challenge to artists, to critics and to the public.

Purchases of prizewinners

Prizes were awarded and some of these were purchase prizes enabling the Walker Art Gallery to build up its collection of contemporary art with an assurance and an authority which had not been possible since the early years of the Autumn Exhibitions.

Jack Smith’s ‘Creation and Crucifixion|’ won the major purchase prize at the 1957 exhibition; Kitaj’s ‘Red Banquet’ was acquired from the 1961 show; Hockney’s ‘Peter getting out of Nick’s pool|’ received the first purchase prize in 1967; Hoyland’s ‘Broken bride|’ came from the 1982 exhibition and the tradition still carries on today.

Like the exhibitions the acquisitions covered a wide stylistic range reflecting the taste of very different juries - from Kitaj’s historical reconstruction through Allen Jones’s erotic imagery ('Hermaphrodite|') to Hoyland’s abstraction.

Major temporary displays of contemporary art

The Gallery has not confined its purchases of contemporary art to the John Moores Exhibitions nor were these exhibitions the only major temporary displays of contemporary art in the Gallery over the last forty years.

The Peter Moores Liverpool Projects of 1971 to 1986 were selected exhibitions concentrating on particular aspects of modern painting and sculpture and were not so rigorously confined to painted surfaces as the John Moores Exhibitions.

There have also been a series of one man shows which still continue and at present concentrate on artists with strong Merseyside connections. These also have often related to major acquisitions: for example Bill Viola’s ‘Observance|’.

An online gallery of later 20th century art highlights from the collection| is available to view online.