New Light Prize Exhibition – The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum
A unique selling point of this exhibition is that the featured artists were all born, reside or studied in the North of England. It was one of the founding principles of the New Light charity when it was established in 2010 – to promote and nurture the best of Northern art. It also aims to take art out into the community through a free lending service of works from its collection and to promote art education with its Art for All programmes.
It is the first time the biennial exhibition has been held in the Wirral and the Curator, Niall Hodson, is delighted to be hosting it: “We’re very happy. It’s great news. It’s really important that big art prizes are not dominated by London and with the John Moores Painting Prize being on at the same time over in Liverpool, it shows that the North, and in particular Merseyside, is making a claim for an important arts presence”.
The impressive gallery spaces at the Williamson always make it a pleasure to see their shows and for this one, the curatorial team has done the artists proud – giving two of its largest rooms to the 121 artworks. It means a lot to artists that their work is dignified by being shown in such surroundings – especially to emerging artists who may not have exhibited before. Competitions such as this also give them an opportunity to be seen alongside more well-known and established artists. And, of course, there’s always the possibility of winning substantial prize money – in this case, a total competition fund in excess of £15,000.
One of the New Light Awards is specifically for an Emerging Artist, the winner receiving mentoring, professional advice and an exhibition at Saul Hay Gallery in Manchester. This year’s recipient is George Melling for his painting with the poignantly evocative title, ‘During the Endless Night She Felt Herself Losing Her Mind’. He describes his paintings as being about “passing time, loss and our mortality, but ultimately they are about love”.
The winner of the £10,000 Valeria Sykes Award is Frances Bell, a classically trained portrait and landscape artist, who studied and worked at the renowned Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence. The wistful atmosphere and title of her large oil painting, ‘Lockdown’, evokes memories of those troubled COVID pandemic times. She told me that winning the prize is of great importance: “Having won this prize I can now put those funds to use in doing a couple of the sort of unpaid projects, like ‘Lockdown’, that allow me to expand my mind and try new things. In a sense it is a guarantee of opportunity to develop. Prizes offer the winner massive exposure and funds… and I know that they catapult you up, allowing you access to the art market that is a very closed world for many. This seems especially true when promoting artists outside of London”.
In the first gallery space I was delighted to see a prominent display of printmaking, a medium that, to my mind, does not get enough recognition. Artists have long known about its potential as a method of making original artworks – among them some of the most famous names from art history: Durer, Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso. But it’s often misunderstood as only being a reproduction form. So, it’s really encouraging that New Light has a specific Printmakers’ Award, which this year goes to Neil Bousfield for his work, Bewick’s Place, a 16-block engraving and woodcut, which looks at the notion of home and place from multiple perspectives. He will be offered a solo or group exhibition at the Zillah Bell Gallery in North Yorkshire, host to some of the UK’s very best printmakers.
There is also a £2,500 Patron’s Choice Award, which was won by Robert Cook for his extraordinarily lifelike nature painting of a ‘Bog Bumper Emerging from the Moss’. The Judges also select one painting to be purchased and added to New Light’s collection. They chose ‘The Art of Balance’ by Christine Stables, an abstract painting using acrylic paint, glazes and ink, with which she has achieved a striking translucence and texture.
There are 101 artists in this show, featuring a wide range of styles and talents – from traditional oil painting on canvas to hand-woven tapestry. All the artworks are for sale and every purchase supports the viability of participants’ artistic careers. The Williamson is a member of the Own Art scheme, which aims to make it easier and more affordable to buy contemporary art by providing interest-free loans.
New Light Prize Exhibition can be seen at The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum until 22 December 2023. It then tours to the following locations: London’s Bankside Gallery, The Gallery at Rheged in Penrith, The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle and finishes at The Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate on 31st December 2024.