Lynn Painter-Stainers PrizePainters’ Hall, until 1 December
Art competitions suffer from a basic problem: how to apply a first-past-the-post system designed for racing to art. In some cases, contestants don’t even qualify for the same event — this year’s Turner Prize, typically, pits film and photography against installation. To avoid this sort of stupidity, the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize — now holding its third exhibition at Painters’ Hall — confines itself to ‘creative representational painting’ displaying ‘the skill of draughtsmanship’. But even this allows for invidious differences of subject, medium and approach. How is it judged? As one of this year’s selectors I happen to know, and without doing a Lynn Barber and completely blowing the gaff, I think it’s fair to explain.
Unlike the Byzantine machinations behind the Turner exposed by Barber in the press last year, the Painter-Stainers’ selection process is open and transparent. The judging panel is solely responsible for the entire selection from a national open submission. This year’s panel included a fair spread of judges: three painters — Ken Howard RA, Daphne Todd OBE and James Lloyd, a past BP Portrait Award winner — the gallery owner Francis Kyle, the curator and art historian Andrew Wilton, and myself on behalf of The Spectator, the prize’s media sponsor. On a September morning, an hour late because of a Tube strike, we muster in the poky basement of the Mall Galleries for a day of judgment in which we must select some 70 paintings from a record submission of over 800. We sit behind a barricade of tables while handlers carry a train of paintings past. A show of three selectors’ hands means they are retained for further weeding out in the afternoon; conferring is kept to a minimum, as practised organisers Parker Harris whip us on.
It’s enough to break an artist’s heart to witness the speed at which lovingly executed works are processed; artists who have sat on judging panels can never again feel the same about entering. Inevitably, there are regrets on the part of the judges. The first hour’s entries are always judged over-harshly while they get their eye in, but calls to bring works back, once buried in a stack of rejects, meet with a frosty reception from the clock-watching organisers. Because entries are anonymous, there are pangs of remorse when a judge discovers that he or she has given a firm thumbs-down to a work by a friend or colleague, and there’s no turning back (an attempt to do so by one of this year’s selectors was drowned, I’m pleased to say, in a chorus of protest).
At the end of this savage exercise in speed-rating, what are we left with? A remarkably representative overview of the varied state of British representational painting. In the still-life camp, Uglowish lemons and Morandiesque garlics vie with photorealist crushed drinks cans and plastic bags. On the landscape front, a Cornish beach scene with echoes of Alfred Wallis sits alongside a snowy back garden à la Carel Weight and a super-realist 1960s motorway restaurant. There are odd images of animals and children: a mad-eyed Albino hamster presses his quivering pink nose against a picture plane, while a small boy in blue underpants skips over a telly. In the portrait department — heavily subscribed this year — there are paintings of young and old by young and old, the age not always reflected in the price: a giant Lady Thatcher by 25-year-old Lorna May Wadsworth carries a gob-smacking price tag of £100,000. (Only a maniac would pay that, but perhaps one will.)
In short, this year’s Painter-Stainers is a massed parade of painterly observation of a sort too rarely seen in public galleries. No one can say it lacks variety, though some may complain that the shortlist is figure-heavy, with portraits by Jennifer McRae, Antony Williams, Susan Wilson, Neale Worley and Benjamin Sullivan — winner of the £15,000 First Prize — plus a figure composition by Dick French, as against a landscape diptych by Young Artist Award winner Poppy Jones. That’s just the way the selection fell. The good thing about a selling exhibition like this, of course, is that those who would have chosen differently can do so.