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Painting of a throng of humanity wins John Moores art prize

The Guardian logo The Guardian 04/03/2021 Mark Brown Arts correspondent

A large and vibrantly colourful painting full of people unthinkingly gathering and mingling has captured top prize in one of the UK’s most prestigious art awards.

The painter, Kathryn Maple, was on Thursday named winner of the biennial Liverpool-based John Moores painting prize, following in the footsteps of artists such as Patrick Heron (1959), David Hockney (1967), Peter Doig (1993), and Rose Wylie (2014).

Judges said the work, entitled The Common, struck a particular chord because it showed people doing what, at the moment, amid Covid restrictions, they cannot do.

“The painting resonates with movement and communality and embodies the deeply social nature of humans,” said Michelle Williams Gamaker, one of the judges. “It fills me with hope and longing to be part of this form of connection again.”

Maple, 31, created the acrylic work before anyone knew what lockdowns would mean, spending six months, on and off, in 2019 in her studio in Deptford, London.

Winning the £25,000 first prize felt unreal, she said. “I don’t know when it will settle in, I’m buzzing around all over the place. It is just the best possible news ever, this is probably the biggest week of my life.”

The painting is based on two worlds – Uneo park in Tokyo, a verdant oasis of calm away from the city, and the people she sees near her home in Lewisham. She describes the painting, measuring 2.2 metres by 2.4 metres, as a “meeting place, an intersection, people seemingly aware of each other, but minds elsewhere … all sharing an open space”.

She said: “My studio is not very big at all and I had to stretch the painting at a friend’s studio because I wouldn’t have got it out the door. Maybe with this prize I can think about getting a bigger space.”

The painting will also be included in the collection of the Walker art gallery, which organises what is Britain’s biggest painting prize.

Sandra Penketh, Liverpool’s executive director of galleries and collections care, called Maple’s painting compelling. “The Common is an observation about human interaction, and the way we commune with the natural world, particularly in our cities. It has a special poignancy at this difficult time when the value of our physical and emotional connections to people and places have taken on such a deep resonance.”

Judging this year had to be carried out online and involved high-spec cameras, screens and speakers. Hurvin Anderson, a painter, was one of the judges. He said the storytelling and characterisation in Maple’s work was both vivid and intriguing.

“I felt drawn into the gathering by a gradual reveal of detail, while the dynamic colour palette adds drama to the immediate scene and the foliage beyond. Kathryn’s composition is so evocative of the magic that can be found in the everyday human experience amidst the backdrop of nature,” he said.

Maple’s work was chosen from almost 3,000 entries. The other shortlisted artists, who each receive £2,500, are Robbie Bushe (The Neanderthal Futures Infirmary), Michele Fletcher (Compost), Steph Goodger (The Motherland), and Stephen Lee (March). Kiki Xuebing Wang was named as the first winner of the emerging artist prize.

The winning works are among 67 paintings on display at the Walker gallery until 27 June. The gallery is closed but there is an online tour of the show on its website.


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