Walker Art Gallery
North West England

High above the neoclassical columns of St George’s Hall north side a red neon sign flickers slowly through its predetermined routine. Just beyond here, in the Walker Art Gallery’s special exhibition space, the only evidence of the John Moores Painting Prize 2012’s private view of the previous evening is a discreet spotting of tiny, immaculately placed, red circles.

The honeyed-tan floorboards remember yielding to the shoes – the assured sweep of leather winkle-pickers, the soft-soled hush of suede boots, the hard jabbing of stiletto heels, the bulky clump of platforms, the sticking-squeak of rubber plimsolls and the loose slide of ballet pumps and sandals. Then, the space was hot. Hot from bodies and temporary studio lights. Young men, contemporary dandies with high collars and gel-shocked hair, nudged in close to heavily lipsticked women, luxuriously spangled, whilst aging, bow-tied notaries skirted the edges of the rooms, in search of something or someone familiar. ‘Such a strong show’, ‘so beautifully hung,’ ‘the best yet,’ they said; their words floating up high above the buzzing throng to hover still in the perfect whiteness of the stuccoed ceiling. In the unlit gloom of Room 11, Mrs Mounter, landlady to Harold Gilman, stares uncertainly from out of the canvas, deaf to the throbbing boom of the mobile DJ’s speakers in the foyer below.

It is Saturday morning, just after 10 am. In the Victorian Galleries an Indian man calls sharply to his wife to follow. A tall woman in shorts and sandals listens while her tiny male companion details the events depicted in an immense work of the death of Nelson. ‘Very clever,’ she replies and slopes off. The mobile phone of a long-legged young female starts to ring. Her hand falls away from the handle of the glass doors that mark the entrance to the Painting Prize and she steps back, phone to ear. ‘I had booked an appointment but I cancelled, thank you, bye.’ The first room is a smallish antechamber. It is cold. The boards moan and give. Two gallery workers stand before four brightly painted overalls. They both wear turquoise shirts and lanyards; one has a black apron around her waist. They giggle, shrug and slide off into the main gallery. ‘I like that,’ says a woman with a large, bulky leopard skin handbag, gesturing to a small grey-toned canvas, as her friend holds open the door. They mostly come in couples – a shared, silent intimacy of looking. A soft-edged pair stop before a large dazzlingly-coloured abstract. They whisper to each other, heads leaning in.

Footsteps, some tentative, some purposeful, ricochet around the cavernous space. ‘The films are less violent than the books.’ Two men and a girl in pink silk shorts stand in the middle of the room talking. The older man stands aside and sends a text. The girl swings her bag against her calf. ‘That’s good,’ she says, striding towards a painting reminiscent of an opened doll’s house. ‘I like it,’ her voice strident, precocious, used to being heard. ‘You can get lost in the stories,’ says the younger man, a dove-grey scarf wrapped loosely round his neck. She crosses her legs as they talk, both tracing the narrative with their fingers. A small huddle of other visitors cluster around them. ‘It’s like Spooks,’ he says, laughing. A Muslim woman in a black headscarf leans in to peer at a small tempera image of a bombed-out bar. She is joined by a short, rather lumpen lady in a light-blue tracksuit top and rolled up trousers. She rocks slowly along the edges of the room, giving each picture an equal measure of her time. Each title is assiduously read. Her hands hang by her sides, slightly clenched. ‘So,’ says a frowsy, red-faced woman after bobbing her head in close, ‘he painted it. I like that. A special commendation – it look likes the 1980s.’ She titters nervously. Two women read the blurb about the prize-winner. They murmur associations, sharing stories. ‘Mmm, it’s great,’ one of them purrs, as they reluctantly pull away.

In the adjoining room, among the postcards and prints, a till drawer pings alive. The tittering red-faced woman and her daughter are filling out Visitor’s Choice forms. The mother dots her card with a flourish. ‘There,’ she states proudly. ‘Now, what can I win?’ ‘I think we have exhausted Mr Moore,’ states the texting man, clearly wanting to be elsewhere in his large black cashmere coat. ‘No,’ replies his grey-scarfed companion, ‘I think he has exhausted you.’

Lunchtime and the downstairs café is choc-a-block. Easy chatter is being swallowed up into the general clacker of crockery, coffee machines and metal chairs on tiles. A pregnant woman and her aged guest break their conversation to wave at a toddler who stands, halfway up the stairs, with his head through the bannisters. ‘Owen, Owen,’ she calls, flapping her hand wildly.

‘Some of the paintings make me furious,’ the shop assistant is saying as he taps the prices into the till, ‘it’s like an artist playing a prank on me.’ He reddens, suddenly self-conscious. Then he smiles before turning away to answer the enquiries of a small Japanese man in a dark mackintosh.

In the Clayton Square Shopping Centre two lean lads in white shell suits push into the burgeoning swell of shoppers surging down the ramp. ‘I spent all me dole on it,’ one of them boasts, unabashed. Their gait is a rolling bounce, fearless. An old man in a creased beige raincoat sits on a semi-circular brick bench. A gigantic TV screen looms over his head spitting blue light. The bench is full. Lunch is being eaten out of plastic containers and paper bags. The man stares at the floor, hands agitating. ‘Echo! Programme! Echo! Programme!’ shouts the newseller, who every morning at 7.00am has to haul his heavy metal stand to his pitch, leaning on his back like a cross.

On the east side of St George’s Hall a wedding group is getting ready to be photographed. A young bridesmaid twirls around in her white tulle, dizzying herself. Two older girls stand frozen on the steps, shoulders exposed, sulking. ‘Ah, doesn’t she look pretty,’ remarks a woman of the bride, bumping a pram over the cobbles. A blonde curly-haired little girl, butter-wouldn’t-melt, bashes the side of a piece of weighty, political street art before running off to join her mother.

Back in the main gallery two visitor assistants are talking of the Rolf Harris exhibition. ‘It was packed and some people came back and back. People walked in and stayed. It broke all the records. Of course, it’s the telly that does it.’ ‘I’m no connoisseur but I know what I like,’ he continues. ‘That one,’ he exclaims pointing at a lofty, intricately patterned canvas on the far wall, ‘it reminds me of tropical fish.’ His colleague, leaning heavily on a stick grins in agreement, revealing shiny pink gums minus their four front teeth. He gestures towards one of hyper-real tree branches. ‘Nice colours, it looks like a bit of thought has gone into that one.’ An aged couple stand before a big multi-coloured abstract. ‘Liquorice Allsorts,’ she says. Two women in long jackets waft past. ‘It’s good for the city,’ one of them is saying, her friend nodding, earnestly concurring. ‘Enamel, that’s what they use on cars an’ stuff,’ a college student informs her two friends. They shuffle off, three-as-one, to stand transfixed, gaping-mouthed before a giant canvas depicting a mass of make-up containers.

Down below, in the Big Art for Little Artists space, an elderly, bespectacled couple occupy a large, ornately painted bench. He is reading a gallery brochure while she sits staring into space. Nursery age children run circles around them, squealing. A perfect page-boy of a child keeps pressing and repressing a button on a plastic monitor letting out a disembodied ‘Listen with Mother’ voice. ‘Two brown eyes, one pink nose, ten busy fingers, ten busy toes,’ she carols, over and over again.

It is 4.45 pm. An afternoon breeze secretes a single piece of pale yellow confetti between the paving slabs. Two Asian women wrestle a laden pushchair down the steep stone steps. Just round the corner the neon sign over St George’s Hall is still playing through its slow crimson routine: ‘The Right to Wrong’, it pulsates, ‘The Wright to Right, The Right to Right.’