Matisse biography clinches £30,000 Whitbread prize

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A monumental biography of Matisse which was started by Hilary Spurling 15 years ago was last night named the £30,000 Whitbread book of the year in arguably the closest vote in the prize's two-decade history.

Heated debate over nearly two hours saw the judges agonising between the Spurling tome, Kate Thompson's children's book, The New Policeman, and the fifth part of poetry veteran Christopher Logue's Iliad epic, also written over many years.

But after a complicated points system was allotted to each of the books for the prize - which pits poetry, a first novel, a novel, biography and children's fiction against each other - Matisse The Master proved the victor.

Announcing the winner at a ceremony in London, Michael Morpurgo, the former Children's Laureate who chaired the judges, said: "So many people felt it was a massive work, but yet it didn't read like it. It read like a story.

"We were reading about this man and his pictures and the life that he had, his family and his travels. Somehow she managed to paint a picture of a painter that was accessible to people not necessarily familiar with art. It was an extraordinary achievement to write a book that length and you get to the end and you're sorry it's finished."

But Mr Morpurgo admitted that the judges, who included the actress Joanna David and her daughter Emilia Fox, and the novelist and biographer Margaret Drabble, were forced to resort to a system of proportional representation to decide. "It was unbelievably close. I've never been in a judging panel which was as close. We had to go over and over it until we were absolutely sure," he said.

The runner-up was The New Policeman which was a "short, short head" ahead of Logue's slender volume, Cold Calls. Mr Morpurgo called The New Policeman an "extraordinary evocation" of the part of Ireland where Ms Thompson, the daughter of the writer and political thinker EP Thompson, now lives. He described Cold Calls as managing to make an ancient war accessible. The other books in contention were Ali Smith's novel, The Accidental, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and hotly favoured by the bookmakers last night, and Tash Aw's debut, The Harmony Silk Factory.

But it was the Matisse that clinched it. The book, the second part of Spurling's ground-breaking study of the French artist, had already received rave reviews. Giles Waterfield, writing in The Independent, descried it as "inspired and innovative".

"What is remarkable is the way that Spurling enters into the character of her subject, communicating his charm, his obsessiveness and restlessness, his enjoyment of life, the tensions within him and - hardest of all - his creativity," he said.

Hilary Spurling was born in Stockport in 1940 and became a journalist after Oxford. She was the arts editor, theatre critic and literary editor for The Spectator in the 1960s and still writes reviews for newspapers. Her previous biographies include the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett and George Orwell's wife, Sonia.

Rodney Troubridge, a buyer for Waterstone's, said she was a worthy winner. "Hilary Spurling is an extremely good biographer and her long list of works hold testimony to the quality of her work. Matisse the Master is yet another glorious example of her fine writing style and I am thrilled that her work has been recognised in this way."

Critics of the Whitbread Book of the Year have often spoken of the impossibility of comparing books from different genres.But Michael Morpurgo defended the prize, which is in its last year of being sponsored by Whitbread. He said it would be "absurd" to make a choice using applying literary criticism. "How can you compare Logue and a children's book? What you have to go for was the book that hits you here." He struck his chest. "These are all fantastic books."