Introducing the W Gordon Smith Award

Drawing of W Gordon Smith by Sandy Moffat. Picture: Contributed
Drawing of W Gordon Smith by Sandy Moffat. Picture: Contributed
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LAUNCHED in Scotland on Sunday, the W Gordon Smith Award is a celebration of contemporary painting, and of the man who did so much to support Scottish artists

Scotland on Sunday are proud to announce the launch of a major new Scottish painting prize, in memory of the paper’s much-loved art critic, W Gordon Smith.

Everyone will be treated exactly the same regardless of where they’ve come from. It will be a level playing field

The W Gordon Smith Award has total prize money of £15,000, making it one of Scotland’s largest and most important art prizes. The award is open to all artists living and working in Scotland, and to Scots-born artists working in the rest of the UK and abroad.

There are no restrictions on age or stage of artistic development, or on style or subject matter, only that the work entered must be a painting.

The organisers, who include Smith’s widow, Jay, believe that the open nature of the competition reflects the way Smith supported artists throughout his life. Smith, who died in 1996, was a pioneering maker of television documentaries about the arts in Scotland, as well as a leading critic and playwright.

Jay Gordonsmith says: “It’s all about Gordon, and that’s how it should be. He did a great deal for a great many artists over many years, and did so right up until he died. He was so creative himself, he understood where artists are coming from. He understood how hard it was for the majority, and therefore, when he was writing about their work, he always tried to be positive and celebratory.”

After the closing date on 7 December, the four judges will make an initial selection of works which will be exhibited in a show at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh in January 2016. From these, winners will be chosen for the £10,000 top prize and two further awards of £2,500. The works in the exhibition will be for sale, with all proceeds going direct to the artist.

The initial selection of works will be made anonymously. Gordonsmith says: “Everyone will be treated exactly the same regardless of where they’ve come from. It will be a level playing field. The whole idea is that if you go online and pay your entry fee, you have got every chance of being included in something quite exciting.”

Artist Sandy Moffat, former head of painting and printmaking at Glasgow School of Art and a good friend of Smith, says he hopes the prize will encourage painters in an art environment increasingly focused on the conceptual. He says: “If you’re at an art college now, you’re not encouraged to paint, it’s as simple and as sad as that. It’s not considered the contemporary vehicle of the avant-garde.

“We’re trying to give painting a bit of a boost, trying to say, ‘It is important, it is capable of meaningful contemporary statements, it’s not dead’. Artists can work in any kind of medium – oils, watercolour, acrylic, or painting with dyes or some kind of organic material, there’s no limit on the ingenuity of the artist here.”

Tom Wilson, artist and former director of Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery, is a judge for the award, along with Moffat. He says: “If I had a pound for everybody who said to me that painting is dead, I’d be a wealthy man. Painting is still out there, everybody’s doing it. You get a feeling that a lot of people are painting away not getting any recognition, while conceptual art gets loads of column inches. We’re hoping to address that in a small way.”

Fellow judge Margaret Hunter says she feels young artists are under more pressure to market themselves today than they were when she was starting her career, and she notes that this can be particularly difficult for painters, given the levels of exposure conceptual art now enjoys.

“But painting has continued to develop,” she says, “it hasn’t stood still, new concepts and different techniques are evident. So this is a good time and an ideal opportunity for Scottish painters to show that strong painting, which has always been a tradition in Scotland, is still alive.”

Wilson says no-one should feel deterred from entering. “The judges’ tastes are likely to be quite different. I think there will be a bit of a battle going on, and that’s a very healthy thing. No-one should be put off, there will be a degree of catholic taste. There’s no saying we couldn’t admire a Mark Rothko and then see a Richard Dadd and say, ‘That’s a beautiful painting, it’s got a great story to tell.’

“This is a great way of commemorating Gordon, of giving prizes to artists, but also giving them the platform to exhibit, and if work is sold the selling price goes straight to the artist.”

This ethos mirrors Smith’s widespread support of artists, which continued throughout his varied career. After cutting his teeth as a newspaper journalist, he joined the BBC in the late 1950s and became a producer, first for radio, then television. He quickly became the major producer of arts documentaries for BBC Scotland, making more than 100 films about artists and their work, across all art forms. Two of his subjects in the early 1970s were Moffat and his friend John Bellany, then rebellious young artists in their twenties seeking to overturn the establishment. Moffat says: “When we were young artists, nobody helped us, everybody was frightened of us, apart from Gordon. He wanted to make films about us, and there was an instant rapport.

“We were always indebted to him for that early encouragement. Supporting younger artists was always something he did. Also, he was very good at supporting artists who were either undiscovered or forgotten about; he didn’t really concentrate on fashionable figures at all. I think the age of celebrity would have appalled him.”

Smith also found time to be a playwright, writing and directing a variety of works which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and elsewhere; one obituary described him as “one of the leading Scottish playwrights of recent decades”. His highly acclaimed play Vincent, about Van Gogh, was performed by Tom Fleming, and translated into a variety of languages. Jock, about an ageing Scottish soldier, began a long-running partnership with Russell Hunter.

He left the BBC in 1980 and returned to journalism, wrote books on WG Gillies, Robin Philipson and David Donaldson, edited Fallen Angels, a collection of Scottish artists writing in response to the paintings of Jack Vettriano, and in 1990 became art and theatre critic for Scotland on Sunday.

Writing in Scotland on Sunday just after his death, John Bellany said: “[He] had a huge creative flow combined with a generosity of spirit. He had that wonderful knack of spotting the merit in an artist’s outpourings and never gloated over their weaknesses… His love of the visual arts and artists was boundless and his hallmark was encouragement.

“He never ceased to visit exhibitions – several every week of his life – spotting a bit of mediocrity here, a bright young spark there, and an old man of renown still flourishing somewhere else. Gordon was also that rare type of human being – a life enhancer.”

Moffat says: “He was a larger than life personality, he was very gregarious, there was nothing he couldn’t talk about, no-one he hadn’t met. He knew all the poets, all the actors, London people as well – he wasn’t a little Scotlander by any means.”

So, what will the judges be looking for as they scrutinise the entries in the prize that celebrates his legacy? Moffat says: “We’re looking to be surprised, to be illuminated by what comes in. We’re not looking with a magnifying glass, we want something to reach out and grab us.”


• The W Gordon Smith Award is open to all artists living and working in Scotland, and all Scottish artists working throughout the UK and abroad. Each artist should enter one painting. It can be in any medium and style and of any subject atter, as long as it does not exceed 150 square cm. All works should be new (produced within the last year) and should not have been previously exhibited. Entries should be made online at There is a £20 non-refundable entry fee. The closing date is 7 December, 2015.

• The competition judges are: Margaret Hunter, international painter and sculptor; Sandy Moffat, artist and former head of painting and printmaking, Glasgow School of Art; Tom Wilson, artist and former director of the Open Eye Gallery; Susan Mansfield, writer and arts journalist.

• An exhibition of selected entries will be presented at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh in January. From these, a winner will be chosen who will receive a £10,000 prize. Two special awards of £2,500 each will also be presented. The winners will be announced on 11 January, 2016, at the Dovecot Gallery.

• For details on competition rules and how to enter, see