The Duff Cooper Prize was founded in memory of Alfred Duff Cooper by his friends, who wished to honour his love of books.
Duff, though best known as a politician and diplomat, was also a successful writer of history, poetry and biography.
As he declared in his autobiography, Old Men Forget: ‘Buying books has always been my weakness, and I have left a a trail of them wherever I go.’
This enthusiasm found full expression in the Duff Cooper library in the British Embassy in Paris, a home for his eclectic collection of volumes old and new, French and British, history and literature. It was here that Duff, shortly after his appointment in 1944 as Ambassador to liberated France, drew on the talents of three French designers to create a room that he pledged to fill with good reading for his successors and their colleagues.
Duff wrote: ‘Although a lover of books, I am not a worshipper of them, and I do not think that love should be accompanied by any of the reverence which goes with worship.
I had certainly rather that these books were ill-treated, thrown about, dog-eared and eventually lost than that they should repose for ever in untroubled, dusty solemnity in the exact positions which they now occupy. Since the books have been arranged, all members of the embassy have had permission to take out any volume they please. I hope this permission will be continued.’
In 1937, Duff and Diana Cooper commissioned their friend Rex Whistler to design a bookplate. Diana is shown as her goddess namesake. Duff’s red parliamentary boxes and documents show his working life, while the twining grapevines and champagne bottles speak of his love of wine and company
After Duff’s death in 1954, a group of his friends formed a Trust – the Duff Cooper Memorial Fund – to endow a literary prize in his memory. Two of the five judges appointed by the Trust are ex-officio: the Warden of New College and a member of Duff Cooper’s family – originally Duff Cooper’s son, John Julius Norwich. He ran the prize for its first 33 years, and then passed it on to his daughter, Artemis.
The other judges serve for five years and appoint their own successors. The first were Maurice Bowra, Cyril Connolly and Raymond Mortimer. Those serving at present are the author and editor Mark Amory; Susan Brigden FBA, historian and retired Fellow and Tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford: and David Horspool, History editor at the Times Literary Supplement.