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Hilary Spurling takes Whitbread Award

Biographer awarded $43,000 for her book, ‘Matisse the Master’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Biographer Hilary Spurling was the surprise winner in Britain’s lucrative Whitbread Book Awards Tuesday.

Spurling, 65, came out on top for her book, “Matisse the Master,” the second volume of a biography she had written about the great painter.

The Whitbread’s top prize goes to one of the winners of prizes already awarded in five categories — novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book. Each category winner receives $8,700, while Spurling receives the $43,000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

Born in Stockport, northwest England, Oxford graduate Spurling spent 15 years writing the two volume work. She had unprecedented and unrestricted access to voluminous family correspondence and other new material in private archives.

“I hope if Matisse could have known the way the awards went this evening, he could have taken it as tribute,” she said in her acceptance speech.

Earlier bookmakers had touted short story writer Ali Smith as the likely winner, but in the end her book — “The Accidental” — and Tash Aw’s Malaysian-set saga — “The Harmony Silk Factory” — were not in the final three as judges continued their deliberations Tuesday.

In the end, Michael Murpurgo, chairman of the judges, said that Spurling beat off strong competition from poetry winner Christopher Logue’s “Cold Calls,” a modern reworking of Homer’s “Iliad” and Kate Thompson’s children’s book, “The New Policeman.”

“Somehow she managed to paint a picture of a painter that was accessible to people not necessarily familiar with art. It’s an extraordinary achievement to write a book of that length, which when you get to the end you are sorry it’s finished,” Murpurgo said.

British retail and leisure group Whitbread Group PLC announced last year that it would no longer sponsor the prizes, which were founded in 1971 and are open to residents of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. A search is under way for a new backer.