Contact sheet of images of John Moores with artists from the 1974 competition
The Walker Art Gallery's archive is full of voices from the past – letters from artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites, notes from early curators and fascinating information from scholars passing judgement on paintings. The John Moores Painting Prize too has left the Walker with an archive, which stretches back 60 years since the inaugural exhibition in 1957.
It was in this part of the archive that, when researching this year's 60th anniversary display, I encountered one of the 'OMG!' moments that do come along every once in a while, and which sent me scurrying to show my colleagues.
1974 John Moores Painting Prize catalogue cover
In a press file relating to the 1974 exhibition I found myself looking at a transcript of the words of a North West legend – the one and only Tony Wilson, music impresario and TV presenter, whose career was celebrated in the film 24-Hour Party People. In his early days as a reporter on Granada Reports, Wilson had been dispatched to the Walker to review that year's John Moores exhibition for a report broadcast on 7 June. For historical context, 1974 was the same year in which, a month later, Wilson was filmed on a street corner opposite the Walker breaking the news to Liverpool FC fans that manager Bill Shankly had retired. It was also just two years later, to the month, that Wilson attended the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, a concert credited with the transformation of the Manchester music scene.
Tony Wilson's Tellex transcript referring to the John Moores Painting Prize 9 exhibition
But back to the Walker, and to Tony Wilson’s first impression of the exhibition: “Well, life these days is usually drab, dull and grey yet here you have 90 canvases that are full of bright, forceful shapes and colours. They may not help pay the rent but they should cheer you up. I myself know absolutely nothing about art but as the old man once said, I do know what I like.” One such work was a painting by Craigie Aitchison: “I like that one. That won the third prize so someone agrees with me, £1,000 cheque. The lady is Daphne, the picture’s called ‘Daphne with her eyes closed’. I can’t quite decide whether I prefer Daphne or the telegraph post in the top corner, but they go quite well together…”
He went on to explain that he didn’t like abstract works, “…a vein that has been overworked in the last 30 years and it’s hard to say anything new about them.” Wilson then spotted one [unnamed] work he admired, saying, “I apologise to viewers with black and white sets, you probably can’t see a thing. People with colour sets will know what they’re missing. Beautiful colours, nothing serious about it, it’s just very, very pretty and delicate.”
Juggernaut II by John Walker
One work now in the Walker’s collection, ‘Juggernaut II, 1973’ by John Walker, caught his eye. The painting had won the second prize of £2,000: “It’s got nice texture, it’s big and impressive but it bears little relationship to the ordinary realities of life.”
Wilson was drawn instead to a room full of “what I suppose you call pictorial or realist works”, where he admired a painting of “two kids boarding a bus” [‘Bus Stop’ by Kelvin J Crump] and the only local prize winner, “…one of the £100 awards. It’s called ‘Scillonian Pump’ by Maurice Crocker [Cockrill], who’s a lecturer at Liverpool College. It’s in fact a petrol station on the Scilly Isles. I know it doesn’t look much like the Mona Lisa but it does grow on you.” He was also moved to comment on a work by Robert Knight “with something of a sculptured feel about it… ‘A Segment of Rita, waitress at the Alhambra Café’. Nice one.”
He ended the report on the side of the exhibition’s jury: “For all my bad taste, however, I do at least agree with the judges on one thing, that’s the first prize, all £3,000 of it. The best painting to my mind and their money in this exhibition is that one there. ‘Figure against a yellow foreground’. It was painted by Mr Myles Murphy here from Bury, Lancashire, I believe. Is that right?” Murphy, who was present, says that it is correct, adding, “Painting is an activity in which one turns out paintings and one wins a prize and then one hopes to go on painting.” His winning artwork is now in the Tate, one of the few first prize winners not to enter the Walker’s collection. Wilson draws the feature to a close with a final look at Murphy’s painting.
If you’d like a final look at this year’s John Moores Painting Prize, you have until Sunday 18 November, so follow in Tony Wilson’s footsteps and head to the Walker Art Gallery