The James Tait Black Prizes
The James Tait Black Prizes logo

The Prizes in a nutshell

The James Tait Black backlist of winners reads like a selective history of good writing.

First prizes

The first prizes were judged by Professor Herbert Grierson, Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh.

The inaugural fiction winner was Hugh Walpole for The Secret City, his work about the Russian Revolution.

Henry Festing Jones won the inaugural biography prize for his book Samuel Butler, Author Of Erewhon (1835-1902) - A Memoir, about the writer and artist Samuel Butler.

Notable winners

Since the Prizes’ inception 100 years ago, the list of winners forms practically a who’s who of literary heavyweights from across the 20th century and beyond. E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and D. H. Lawrence were among the first winners, back in the early 1920s.

By mid-century, writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Rose Macaulay were joining that list on the fiction side. Antonia Fraser, Karl Miller, and Richard Ellman each won the biography prize in the years that followed.

An extraordinary run of fiction winners in the 1970s included Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Iris Murdoch, and Lawrence Durrell. Since then, Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips, Zia Haider Rahman, and Eimear McBride have joined the list of winners.

Literary distinction

Four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature have been awarded a James Tait Black Prize. Early in their careers William Golding, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee each collected a fiction prize and Doris Lessing was awarded a prize for biography.

There have been four joint fiction awards:

  • 1996 - Graham Swift - Last Orders, and Alice Thompson - Justine
  • 1966 - Christine Brooke-Rose - Such, and Aidan Higgins - Langrishe, Go Down
  • 1981 - Salman Rushdie - Midnight's Children, and Paul Theroux - The Mosquito Coast
  • 1984 - J.G Ballard - Empire of the Sun, and Angela Carter - Nights at the Circus.

Zadie Smith won a James Tait Black Prize at the very start of her career for her 2000 novel White Teeth – the same year as Martin Amis won the biography prize for Experience.

In 2016 Angela Carter was awarded a special 'Best of the James Tait Black' prize for Nights at the Circus, a one-off award to celebrate the 250th anniversary of English literature study at the University of Edinburgh.

Winners' voices 

The lineage of the James Tait Black Prizes speaks for itself, and I am humbled and so proud to be part of it. This award is an undreamed of honour that I will always treasure.

Tatjani Soli2010 fiction winner, The Lotus Eaters

I'm proud and pleased to be in the company of so many of my favourite writers, who've already won this first and most elegant of book prizes.

Hilary Spurling2010 biography winner, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China

I am so happy to receive this award. The James Tait Black not only unfurls a great tail of eternally shining writers, but the body of the comet in the present time contains mighty names. A signal moment of unalloyed joy.

Sebastian Barry2008 fiction winner, The Secret Scripture

I am particularly pleased to be given the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1921 my biographical subject (some would say victim) Lytton Strachey won this prize for his Life of Queen Victoria; and in 1967 my wife, Margaret Drabble, won the fiction award. I am delighted to be following them – though I shall never quite catch them up.

Michael Holroyd2008 biography winner, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families.

The history of the James Tait Black is stunning, the list of past winners matchless, the process of selection agreeably academic. I’m very gratified and honoured. I’m also rather touched. Our Horses in Egypt is, after all, resolutely equine.

Rosalind Belben2007 fiction winner, Our Horses in Egypt

I first heard of this award not as a writer but as a reader, where I found it set like a seal on everything I most admired in biography. It has been given, fearlessly, to books of many kinds - scholarly, experimental and iconoclastic. As a result it has become a gold standard and I am thrilled and very honoured to have won it.

Rosemary Hill2007 biography winner, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain