AN ATMOSPHERIC painting of a fairground late at night after the crowds have gone home was the judges' favourite choice in this year's Dover Prize art competition in Darlington.

Chris Newbrook's Fairground Embers is one of the smaller pictures on show in the new gallery at the town hall, but the dark blue background illuminated by vibrant bursts of colour express keen observation and the mood of the scene. It won the artist, who comes from Newcastle, the £500 first prize,

The exhibition as a whole is strong on these qualities of observation and mood, though they are not invariably found together.

Darlington artist, Megan Burford, won second place and £300 with Catnap, a realistic and meticulously painted sleeping ginger puss, so tightly cropped that head and body push up against picture surface and frame emphasising coiled contentment - all that's missing is the purr.

The £200 third prize went to Hartlepool artist, Wilf Lancaster, for a muted charcoal drawing Rhythm showing the interior of a workshop in which various mechanical structures are partially illuminated by an outside source of light, but not clearly distinguishable thus giving the picture a slightly disturbing quality.

It is the first time the Dover Prize exhibition has been held in the town hall gallery - as reported in this column last week, the council has organised a public competition to find an appropriate name.

The judges this year were Coun Dot Long, who was instrumental in obtaining the use of the old rates hall after the loss of the Crown Street gallery in the library, Alan Suddes, Elizabeth Conran and last year's winner, Elizabeth Smith.

There are six highly commended awards, including two in a small, but strong selection of portraits: Running the Race, by Edward Tibbs, a full-length sharply-painted study of a seated jockey deep in thought; and Nicholas Leake's soft-hued head and shoulders in pastels, Self Portrait.

Amanda J Calow's Tulips focuses on colour and shape, and there is drama in this cascade of closed heads that look as if they are about to burst open. They almost transcend nature. Other flower studies in the exhibition are more botanical and thus more reticent, but this, too, is a very competent section.

Michael Attewell's Maid Pouring Milk updates Vermeer. Though dress and hair place the girl in the twentieth century, there is a timelessness about the scene, and a stillness in the pose, reminiscent of the Dutch master.

George Hutchinson's stone-walled road leading into a dappled valley of fields and hills, Towards Derwent Valley, and Alan Dyson's semi-abstract Limestone Scars, Aisby Fell, were also highly commended.

The exhibition is intelligently hung, according to common subject matter or treatment or colour. This enables the spectator to make connections and comparisons, for example, in the patterns and content of the "crowd" scenes on the partition wall opposite the entrance, or in the different ways artists treat landscape - Alan Morley's blur of buttercups and Sue Humphrey's speed-hurtle over poppies can be contrasted with Paul Morgan Clarke's precise low tide observation of Holy Island which details almost every tuft of grass.

Another interesting comparison can be made between adjacent pictures which both stress the collective nature of mining: Tom Dack's The Last Shift, with figures marching darkly towards the viewer, and The Swallow Tattoo by John Illsley whose tightly-knit group of five miners look as if they are hewed in paint, all strong jaws, solid cheeks and with the wrinkles on their jacket sleeves echoing coils of exhaled cigarette smoke.

The exhibition runs until April 26 - entry forms are also available in the gallery for the naming competition. P F.