Being Blunt – the secret double life of Art Historian and spy Anthony Blunt

Jake Wood 4 March 2013

Here’s one for all of you who doubt the practical real world influence of art historians. March this year marks 30 years since the death of notable art historian Anthony Blunt. At both school and university Blunt earned himself a reputation as a rigorous, even stuffy, academic, attaining a first in Modern Languages from Trinity College Cambridge.

It was as a graduate that Blunt began to research French Art History and, in particular, Poussin. His close Cambridge friend Victor Rothschild gave Blunt £100 to purchase a painting by said artist that, by no happy coincidence, is now usually on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, currently away for restoration. So, next time you see Poussin’s ‘Eliezer and Rebecca’, remember this article and see if a bit of context adds a little intrigue.

In 1939, Blunt joined the British army and served bravely in both British and French Intelligence, playing an instrumental role in the decryption of enigma intercepts. As an art historian, Blunt had risen to prominence through his writing by 1940. In 1945 he was made surveyor of the King’s pictures and later the Queen’s, a service for which he was knighted. He became both a lecturer of history of art at the University of London and director of the Courtauld Institute in 1947. Regarded as a dedicated, kind and inspirational teacher, he trained a generation of eminent art historians, including Brian Sewell, Nicholas Serota and Neil Macgregor, to name but a few. He is often credited as the man who made the Courtauld what it is today and, all the while, continued to produce seminal art historical texts on subjects as diverse as Picasso, William Blake and Sicilian architecture. So far so influential.

However, Blunt not only changed the face of art history and helped to bring about the downfall of the Nazis; he also fuelled the cold war, undercutting British intelligence to an untold extent in his role as a soviet spy. Potentially recruited as early as his undergraduate days at Cambridge, he went on to convert many Intelligence Operatives to the soviet cause, all of whom passed on classified information to the Russians both during and after the war. Even the Russians where perturbed by the extent of his treachery and worried that he might in fact be a triple agent. One of his Russian handlers described him as, ‘An ideological shit.’

Many attribute this career path to his membership of the secret society known as The Cambridge Apostles, many of whose members also went on to become spies. The most notable spies of the era, including Blunt, where tellingly dubbed ‘The Cambridge Five’.

Blunt’s cover came under suspicion as early as 1948 when many of his close friends started openly defecting but, even after it had been fully blown, Blunt refused to confess. The truth about him only became public in the ‘70s and the damage done by Blunt and his associates is still unknown. He has continued to be a source of cultural inspiration, stimulating the poetry of Louis MacNeice, the plays of Alan Bennett, the novels of John Le Carre as well as multiple films and Television dramas.  There was even a room inspired by him in the Hacienda nightclub.

Blunt is still quoted today in the footnotes of countless art history students, who smile when the intrigue of this man’s double life provides a brief moment of release from the tedium of an essay on heroic landscape. So it’s true, Art Historians might have slightly less lecture time, but we do also, in some cases, have the capacity to undermine the whole of Western government.

Jake Wood