Hilary Spurling CBE

Hilary Spurling

Areas of Interest


Honorary Award

Honorary Doctor of the University, 2007


Hilary Spurling is a biographer. Born in Stockport in 1940, she was educated at Somerville College, Oxford before becoming arts editor, theatre critic and literary editor for The Spectator during the 1960s. Her first book was a biography of the English novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, which won the Heinemann and Duff Cooper prizes. She has also written on Paul Scott, Sonia Orwell and the great French con-queen, Therese Humbert. Her two-part biography of the French artist, Henri Matisse, has been translated into Russian and Japanese as well as most European languages, winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in the UK and the Los Angeles Times biography award in the US in 2005 . 'Hilary Spurling's devastating ability to uncover secrets gives her biographies the breathless pace and menacing undercurrents of thrillers,' wrote the Financial Times of her last book, Pearl Buck in China.

As a trustee of the Royal Literary Fund, Hilary Spurling designed and set up the nationwide RLF Writing Fellowship, introduced to our university in 2000. Students from all departments, both undergraduate and postgraduate, continue to benefit from this major writer-student collaboration. Hilary lives in London and was made CBE in 2006. In 2007 Hilary Spurling was awarded the Honorary degree of Doctor of the University.


"The Senate of Anglia Ruskin University has great pleasure in recommending the award of Honorary Doctorate of the University to internationally-acclaimed biographer and literary editor Hilary Spurling.

Hilary Spurling is a magnificently-gifted biographer and journalist who has been described as a specialist in 'uncovering secrets kept'. Born in Stockport, in 1940, she was educated at Somerville College, Oxford before becoming an arts editor, theatre critic and literary editor for The Spectator during the 1960s.

Her first book was a biography of the English Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, published in two volumes, ten years apart. Ivy When Young, published in 1974, and the follow up, Secrets of a Woman's Heart, established Hilary Spurling as a distinguished biographer with an eye for 'painstaking detail'.

This groundbreaking author then turned her attention to Paul Scott, the award-winning writer of The Jewel in the Crown. The result, Paul Scott: A Life was published in 1990. Among her 11 biographies, other subjects include the 19th Century French socialite Therese Humbert and George Orwell's wife Sonia Orwell.

It is Hilary Spurling's weighty two-part biography of the French artist, Henri Matisse that has brought her worldwide acclaim. Given unprecedented access to the painter's family correspondence, her carefully crafted two-part volume, which took her 15 years to research, was hailed a 'masterpiece' by the judges of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award 2005.

The second part of her study of Matisse - who married the woman he loved but vowed always to be more in love with his work - has received rave reviews. Giles Waterfield, writing in The Independent said of Matisse the Master of Colour 1909-1954: 'What is remarkable is the way 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.' Hilary Spurling, moreover, has exposed a paradox about Matisse that nobody imagined to exist: that his tranquil art was made by an endlessly angst-ridden man. The Matisse disclosed by Spurling was a person so insecure that he practised violin incessantly out of fear that he would go blind and have to earn his living playing for pennies in the street.

The biography was described by the Whitbread prize judging panel, which included authors Michael Morpurgo and Margaret Drabble, as 'one of the landmark biographies of the last few years which has already changed the history of art'.

Hilary Spurling's work on Matisse found yet another expression in the wonderful catalogue, a sumptuously illustrated book, which accompanied the groundbreaking exhibition of Matisse's work at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Matisse Museum in France. The title is 'Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams'.

Hilary Spurling loves life. She writes biographies because she is fascinated by people, by their infinite resourcefulness. She claims that nature gives her better plots than any novel she could invent. Her subjects have been writers and a painter because the frontier between life and art is where she wants to work.

As a member of the boards of the Royal Literary Fund and Royal Society of Literature, she is now investing much of her time in the future of literature. Most significantly, it was her dream to put writers into universities and institutions of higher learning to improve the writing skills of students and staff. With this in mind, she helped to introduce the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship scheme to Anglia Ruskin University in the year 2000. This scheme is still going strong. Many students have reaped untold benefits from this major writer-student collaboration and it has helped us to develop undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing.

Now living in London and working as a book reviewer for newspapers including The Daily Telegraph, Observer and New York Times, Hilary Spurling combines her work as a writer with family life. She is married to playwright John Spurling and has three children and one grandchild.

Like her famous biographies, she herself brings dazzling, warm sunshine and 'lessons in life' to others who want to be inspired and driven to great things.

To acknowledge the immense achievements of this distinguished biographer, I am therefore exercising the power conferred on me by Senate, to invite the Vice Chancellor to bestow the award of Honorary Doctor of the University upon Hilary Spurling."