Ross King is the winner of this year's RBC Taylor Prize, it was announced Monday, earning one of Canada's highest honours for literary non-fiction for his book Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, a colourful portrait of the French Impressionist during the twilight of his career.
"It's something very nice to have on those dark days when nothing is going right," said King, clutching the crystal award, designed by artist Peter Enneson, that winners receive in additon to a $25,000 prize. "It looks like light will catch it, and so the light can catch it and reflect on me and I can bask in the glory of this trophy and, hopefully, then take some inspiration from that to do more good work."
Fourth time proved to be the charm for King, who was a finalist for the prize on three previous occasions: 2013 for Leonardo and The Last Supper; 2011 for Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven; and 2007 for The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism.
"On my website I say 'Nominated for the Taylor Prize,'" said King. "I've wanted, at some point, to be able to say 'Winner of the Taylor Prize.'"
While it's the first time he's won this particular prize, King – who is originally from Saskatchewan but has lived in England for more than 20 years – is a two-time winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. A novelist-turned-art-historian, his other books include Ex-Libris and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling.
In their citation, this year's jury – novelist Colin McAdam, historian John English and former broadcast journalist Ann MacMillan – praised King's book as "elegantly written and superbly researched" and called it "essential reading for all who want to understand the intersection of politics, nationalism and culture in France during the First World War."
In total, the jury considered 101 books before settling on a short list of five titles. The other nominees, who each receive $2,000, were Matti Friedman for his memoir Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story, which is in part about his time stationed at an outpost on the Israeli-Lebanon border during the late 1990s; McGill professor Marc Raboy for Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, an exhaustive biography of the Italian inventor; Diane Schoemperlen for This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications, a chronicle of her six-year long relationship with a man imprisoned for second-degree murder; and octogenarian first-time author Max Eisen for his searing Holocaust memoir By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz.
Established in 2000, in honour of author and former Globe and Mail correspondent Charles Taylor, the prize celebrates the best literary non-fiction published in Canada each year. Previous winners include Carol Shields, Thomas King and Ian Brown, while last year's prize went to Rosemary Sullivan for Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.
Not only does King receive $25,000, he is now tasked with choosing the recipient of the $10,000 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer's Award.
Standing on stage, moments after being named the winner of a prize that had eluded him for more than a decade, King admitted he did not think this would be his year, either.
"I was slightly anxious when I arrived and saw that I was at table 13," said King. "I'm disposed to portents at times like this, I have to say."