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Matisse biographer lands UK Whitbread Award

Hilary Spurling won the Book of the Year award for Matisse's biography, which took 15 years.
By Reuters | None, London
PUBLISHED ON JAN 27, 2006 09:16 PM IST

Hilary Spurling created a major literary surprise on Tuesday when her biography of the French painter Henri Matisse won Britain's Whitbread Book of the Year award after a battle royal among the judges.

"It was unbelievably close. I have never been in a judging panel that was so close," said chairman of the judges Michael Morpurgo after picking the hotly contested winner of the prize from a shortlist of five.

"She managed to paint a picture of a painter. It was an extraordinary work," Morpurgo said after Spurling won for the second volume of her Matisse biography.

Matisse The Master was described by the judges as "One £of the landmark biographies of the last few years which has already changed the history of art."

It had been 15 years in the writing with Spurling given unprecedented access to Matisse family papers and correspondence.

The Whitbread, one of Britain's most prestigious literary prizes, is split into five categories -- novel, first novel, children's book, biography and poetry. The winner in each category receives £5,000 ($8,908) and the overall winner chosen from among the five receives £25,000.

Morpurgo revealed that after almost two hours of impassioned debate among the judges, "there was no blood on the carpet but it was very heated".

Spurling narrowly defeated Kate Thompson who was the winner in the children's category for her time travel saga The New Policeman, said Morpurgo, a children's writer himself.

Third "just a short head behind" in the literary horse race was veteran poet Christopher Logue for his reworking of Homer's Iliad.

Bookmakers had made novelist Ali Smith hot favourite to land the Whitbread Book of the Year, believing she would make it third time lucky after being shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange prizes.

But she, along with first time novelist Tash Aw, never figured in the final considerations by the judges.

The prize, honouring books from writers based in Britain and Ireland, attracted a record 476 entries this year.

The Whitbread judges always concentrate on picking what they consider to be the most readable book of the year. The Booker judges concentrate on novels alone and literary merit is paramount to their final decision.

But Morpurgo denied that it was an impossible task trying to judge five very different categories to pick the overall Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

"It is a celebration of the diversity of literature," he said.

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