The Turner Prize, how did it all start?

Joseph Mallord William Turner, or JMW Turner as he is known was one of the foremost landscape painters ever to have lived and yet in his day his work was considered controversial. It is hard for us to imagine now but his atmospheric depictions and artistic flourishes were frowned upon largely because paintings until this point were used only to record and to accurately portray events, people or locations, certainly not for embellishments or demonstrating artistic prowess. It was only after his death that the true importance of Turner’s work has come to be fully recognised and the majesty of his paintings appreciated and emulated.

It is widely believed that Turner aspired to establish an art prize for budding artists of his era and so, when the Tate Gallery’s Patrons of New Art set about the creation of what would become one of the best known art prizes of modern times in 1984 – the Turner Prize was a natural choice.

The early years of the Prize were a turbulent time, conflicting views about the purpose of the Prize and concern about the funding of the prize money itself – did the anonymous donor have a vested interest in manipulating proceedings for example, made for some challenging press interviews and media coverage!

Discussion still continues to this day around the ethics of making art a competition and automatically making all but one from the shortlist losers in a competition they had not actually chosen to enter.

Nevertheless, the Prize chose its first winner in 1984, Malcolm Morley, and has done so every year since, except 1990 when, due to lack of sponsorship the Turner Prize lay dormant for one year.

It is during this hiatus, that Nicholas Serota, the then chairman of the Prize took the opportunity to mould the Prize into something we know today; publishing the shortlist and a nomination of four shortlisted artists with an individual exhibition of nominated work at the Tate.

Notable winners throughout the years include sculptor Anish Kapoor (1991), who has since created monumental works throughout the world and was commissioned to deliver Orbit for the 2012 London Olympics, it is the tallest sculpture in the UK.

Antony Gormley, the 1994 winner, famously confessed his ‘embarrassment’ at having won, given the very nature of winning immediately makes three others losers in a race they didn’t enter. Gormley is well known for creating the Angel of the North and in 2014 was knighted for services to the arts.

Damien Hirst in 1995 of course, and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen in 1999 though perhaps his win was overshadowed somewhat by nominee Tracey Emin and her controversial My Bed which made the front pages of the tabloids and was the topic of much ‘yes, but it is art’ debate.

For the first time in 2007 and again in 2011 the Prize was held outside of London, exhibiting in Liverpool and Gateshead respectively, paving the way for Glasgow later this year: Tramway in Glasgow, from 1 October 2015 to 17 January 2016.

Other posts in this series: find out what, exactly, the Turner Prize is and look out for a who’s who of the four 2015 nominees.