History of the John Moores Prize

black and white photograph of people looking at paintings on a wall in a gallery

The first John Moores exhibition was held in 1957, six years after the Walker Art Gallery re-opened after World War II. The Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions, which up till 1939 had acted as the gallery's main showcase for new British art, had come to an end. The gallery's only regular shows of contemporary art were those of the local Liverpool Academy.

The suggestion that the Walker Art Gallery mount

"an exhibition of painting embracing...the best and most vital work being done today throughout the country"

(as the catalogue of the 1957 exhibition put it) came from John Moores, founder of the Littlewoods company based in Liverpool. A man of fierce local pride - and a keen amateur painter - he was concerned at London's increasing domination of the national arts scene. He established the event as a competition open to anyone and sponsored the prizes.

The first John Moores was intended as a one-off, but its great success led to it becoming a biennial event. By the early sixties, the exhibition was regarded as the UK’s leading showcase for avant-garde painting. Many of the prizewinning works were purchased by John Moores and presented to the Walker Art Gallery for its permanent collection. Among them were classic paintings by Jack Smith (' Creation and Crucifixion '), William Scott, Roger Hilton (' March 1963 ') and David Hockney (' Peter getting out of Nick's Pool '). These and other purchases from the exhibition ensured that the Walker Art Gallery's representation of post-war British art was the equal of any other collection in the UK, the Tate only excepted.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, as newer media challenged painting and the range of exhibiting opportunities for cutting-edge artists grew, the John Moores lost some of its unique status. During this period, the Walker Art Gallery did not always acquire the first prizewinner and the show was occasionally subjected to fierce criticism. However, it always retained its reputation as the UK's leading painting biennale and its first prize has continued to be one of the largest of any of this country’s art competitions.

Since 1980, the Walker Art Gallery has automatically added the first prize-winning work to its collection as part of the terms of the award; and by this means has acquired outstanding works by John Hoyland (' Broken Bride 13.6.82 '), Bruce McLean (' Oriental Garden, Kyoto '), Lisa Milroy (' Handles '), Peter Doig (' Blotter ') and Michael Raedecker (' Mirage '), among others. The great tradition of the John Moores was cited as one of the reasons for the Tate's decision to establish its first outpost in Liverpool, in 1988. Since 1999 the exhibition has also been one of the centrepieces of the Liverpool Biennial of contemporary art.

In 2011 Sir Peter Blake became the first patron of the John Moores Painting Prize, 50 years after winning the Junior section of John Moores 3 with his painting 'Self Portrait with Badges' in 1961.

Structure and criteria

The John Moores exhibition's entry criteria, award structure and prize money have changed regularly over the years. Until 1965 (although not every year) as well as an Open painting section there were categories for sculpture, French and 'Junior' artists (originally up to 36 years old but lowered to 25 in 1963). From 1969 'sculptures, kinetics, watercolours and graphic arts' were firmly excluded in favour of painting. Each category had its own prize structure but every exhibition had an overall main prize, representing a significant achievement for the winner. Since 2002 the prize structure has been simplified to award fewer prizes but of higher value.

'Purchase prizes' were a particular feature until 2004.In their simplified form, in addition to the artist winning the prize money, the winning work(s) became the property of John Moores. On several occasions, but not always, these were then gifted by him to the Walker Art Gallery. The Gallery also made additional acquisitions from the exhibitions.

In 2004 the Purchase prize was abandoned in favour of the Gallery having the option to buy the prizewinning work, representing 'added value' to the artists, who receive the prize money plus the purchase price of their painting.

Since 1957, 19 winners of the main prize and 52 further works have been acquired for the Walker's collection.

The roll-call of past John Moores prizewinners reads like a 'who's who' of British painting over the past 50 years.

John Moores juries

Four men and a woman lined up against a brick wall and all smiling

John Moores 25 judges: Dinos Chapman, Sacha Craddock, Paul Morrison, Graham Crowley and Jake Chapman. Image © Mike Marshland

The exhibited works and prizewinners are selected by a jury. The jury members are chosen by the exhibition organisers (the Walker Art Gallery in partnership formerly with John Moores and, since 1993, with the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust).

The size of juries has varied from three to six people. Members have included artists, writers, art critics, broadcasters, curators and musicians. The appointment to the jury in 1965 of renowned American art critic Clement Greenberg caused considerable excitement. Other well-known selectors include Sir William Coldstream, Ron Kitaj, Patrick Heron, Germaine Greer, Sir Peter Blake and Tracey Emin. John Moores chaired the jury on several occasions, but since 1989 there has been no formal Chairperson. Each jury is left to evolve its own selection criteria.

The selection process is anonymous: the jury is not given artists' names or information explaining the meaning of or intention behind the artworks. Only titles, details of media used and size are made available. The jury's task is to reduce the numerous artworks submitted to create the final exhibition, and finally award the prizes. The number of works entered has always been high: consistently over 1,000, frequently over 2,000 and for John Moores 25 (2008), a record 3,322 entries. The jury's task is therefore a large one, with judging taking several days.

Buy a John Moores exhibition catalogue

Several catalogues from our previous John Moores exhibitions are available to buy from our online shop.

Videos

View our selection of videos including interviews with past prizewinning artists and jurors through the history of John Moores.

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