Anthony Blunt: His Lives
by Miranda Carter
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
590 pages, 2002
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The first full biography of the most notorious British spy of the 20th century. For decades a leading light of English high society and the international art world, Sir Anthony Blunt became an object of widespread hatred when, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher exposed him as a Soviet agent.
In Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Miranda Carter traces Blunt's transformations, from young member of the Bloomsbury circle, to left-wing intellectual, to camouflaged member of the establishment. Until his treachery was made public, Blunt was celebrated for his groundbreaking work on Poussin, Italian art and Old Master drawings; at the Courtauld Institute he trained a whole generation of academics and curators. And yet even as he ascended from rebellion into outward conformity, he was a homosexual when homosexuality was a crime, and a traitor when the penalty was death.
Anthony Blunt is a deeply nuanced account of 50 years inside the British power elite, and an astonishing history of one of the century's greatest acts of duplicity.
From the moment of his exposure as a former Russian spy by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in November 1979, Anthony Blunt became a man about whom anything could be said.
He was described as 'the spy with no shame'. He was 'an arrogant evil poseur'. He was a 'treacherous Communist poof '. It was rumoured that at Cambridge he had seduced and blackmailed impressionable undergraduates into serving his nefarious schemes. He had been responsible for the deaths of forty-nine wartime Dutch Special Operations agents behind enemy lines; he might, indeed, have been responsible for any number of deaths. He had been involved in devious conspiracies with Louis Mountbatten -- possibly to put Mountbatten's relatives on the thrones of Europe after the Second World War. He had salted away a fortune abroad. He had brought about the suicide of one of his students, Virginia Lee. He had been a predatory homosexual, or even a paedophile with links to the Kincora children's home scandal in Northern Ireland; he had blackmailed the Establishment into granting him immunity from prosecution by threatening to reveal proof that the Duke of Windsor had been plotting with the Nazis during the Second World War; he had been an authenticator of forgeries, and had connived with the French picture dealer Georges Wildenstein to sell a fake Georges de la Tour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; he had stolen the credit for a book on Picasso from a pupil and colleague, Phoebe Pool; he had borrowed money from his friend Victor Rothschild to buy a Poussin, and never repaid it; he had cheated the elderly Duncan Grant out of a Poussin he had owned, subsequently using his influence to get an export license to sell the picture at a hugely inflated price to a gallery in Canada; he had engineered the Courtauld Institute's move to Somerset House in the Strand in order to deprive the country of a Turner museum, as part of a fiendish plot to 'relegate British art to a secondary position'.
After his exposure, Blunt became a kind of screen on which fiction and fantasy were projected. There was little he could do about this. After the publication of one of the more extravagant stories he asked his lawyer, Michael Rubinstein, if he had any legal recourse, and was told that he did not: he had lost his good name, and it would therefore be impossible to sue for libel. He had in effect so defamed himself that no further defamation was possible.
That was one of the main factors which helped to obscure the truth about Blunt after his downfall. Another was his sheer usefulness as a hate figure. At the time of his exposure the Cold War had led to a polarization of intellectual and political life so absolute that it was entirely taken for granted by all participants. For the Right in Britain, invigorated by Mrs. Thatcher's victory in the general election of May 1979, Blunt was the apotheosis of a particular species of privileged, ungrateful, over-educated, unpatriotic, left-wing intellectual -- and homosexual to boot. He embodied the hypocrisy of a liberal class which gave thanks for its inherited freedoms by betraying them. The press harped on about the naturally lax, relativistic morals of intellectuals and their automatic assumption that they were better than anyone else; these were the obvious reasons for Blunt's misdeeds. 'Less intellectual people have simpler ideas and more direct instincts,' one Thatcherite intellectual wrote. Blunt became defined as a caricature of his class (privileged, therefore overindulged), his calling (academic, therefore elitist and snobbish) and his sexual orientation (homosexual, therefore predatory and wedded to secrets). Sometimes the results were unintentionally hilarious: Mask of Treachery, a prurient, feverishly homophobic, wildly fantastical (if interminable - at 761 pages) spy biography by the late journalist-turned-'contemporary historian' John Costello was subtitled in the USA 'Lies, Spies, Buggery and Betrayal'. The caricature continues to this day: 'Pampered with an upper class education and a comfortable lifestyle,' runs one entry for Blunt in a recent internet history of espionage, 'Anthony Blunt embraced espionage as easily as he would later accept the honours of the country he betrayed. An arrogant intellectual Blunt put himself and his ideas above his loyalty to England. Like most of his class, he felt himself superior to the concept of nations.'
There were other things that could have been said about Blunt; at the time, his friends were reluctant to say them. Many of these friends were in a dilemma. They had no wish to join the rush to public condemnation, but at the same time they were not keen to speak up on Blunt's behalf. For one thing, the torrent of public abuse was so overwhelming that any countervailing voices were drowned out: the publication of one former student's letter of support in The Times led to his denunciation for 'moral blindness', and death threats. For another thing, many of Blunt's friends felt personally betrayed by him. He had lied to them, systematically and without any apparent compunction, for as long as he had known them. Even for those who were by no stretch of the imagination Cold Warriors, the fact that he had passed secrets to the Soviet Union at a time when it was allied with Nazi Germany created no strong wish to enter the lists publicly on his behalf.
The fact that Blunt had been a spy, of course, muddied the waters from the start. Espionage seems naturally to attract conspiracy theorists and fantasists; but even serious would-be chroniclers have for the most part been forced to rely -- in the absence of reliable information from British Intelligence -- on the fallible, sometimes deliberately misleading, and often entirely self-serving memories of former Intelligence officers. In the last few years the Russian Intelligence Archives have made available more information about Blunt and his fellow spies, but they have kept the publication of material under careful control, making their information available only to those whom they choose -- notably former KGB officers, the relatives of former KGB officers and former Cold Warrior spy writers. (It is a peculiar irony that, since the end of the Cold War, these spy writers and former KGB officers have found they have more in common with each other than with anyone else.) They have also given no indication of how complete their disclosures are. In this field, no one with information gives it without a strong reason, and the first question to ask of any revelation is always, cui bono?
The factor which most persistently kept Blunt a mystery, however, was his own fundamental mysteriousness, the fact that even to his friends he was an enigma. They were well aware that there were many things they did not know about him. 'I worked with him for thirty years, but I never felt I really knew him,' his deputy director at the Courtauld Institute of Art, George Zarnecki, said later. There were plenty of others who felt the same way. This was no accident. Blunt had spent much of his life in flight from being known and understood. He was a habitual compartmentalizer and withdrawer from the world. In contrast to the volumes of emotional autobiographical memoir left by the Bloomsbury Group -- whom he knew and by whom he was fascinated in his early youth -- Blunt left extraordinarily few permanent personal traces of himself. It was as if he had spent years trying to excise himself from the record. His letters were almost always undated and almost always empty of personal detail; his 'official' communications to his staff at the Courtauld were as ephemeral as it was possible to be, scribbled in the lightest pencil on torn scraps of paper. His prose style was as cool and impersonal as he could make it. His few attempts at memoir were exasperatingly pedestrian and clumsy, as if the effort of examining and explaining himself was both alien and discomfiting. Even in the face of total condemnation and loss of reputation, he resisted the urge to explain. After his exposure he gave one press conference, in which his evasions -- some real, some apparent -- merely fed the media's appetite for a monster. He seldom spoke about the matter again, and virtually never appeared in public.
Twenty-two years after Blunt's exposure, much has changed. Perhaps the most important of all these changes has been the end of the Cold War. The ideological polarizations which divided almost all political and intellectual life, in Britain as elsewhere, have eased. Blunt's history can be seen in its particularity, rather than as an exemplary (to many, exemplarily hateful) general case. From this new perspective, his life vividly illustrates certain key moments and themes of twentieth-century Britain: intellectual, political, sexual and social. Blunt was a public-school rebel of a near-textbook type; in the 1920s he became a follower of Bloomsbury; in the 1930s a left-wing intellectual; in the 1950s and '60s an impeccably camouflaged man of the Establishment. He turned the Courtauld Institute into a famous centre for research into art history. He was a great teacher who trained a generation of world-class curators and academics. He played a central role in restoring the reputation of the French painter Nicolas Poussin; he wrote several ground-breaking books on French art and architecture and baroque art, and was for decades the most powerful and influential man in British art history. He was homosexual in a world where homosexuality was against the law, and a traitor at a time when the penalty for the crime was death.
Three other factors have made a biography of Blunt possible. One of them is that his friends and colleagues -- for the most part -- came to forgive or to comprehend or to put in context his spying, and became willing to talk about their memories of him. It would not have been possible to write this book without these testimonies, which I make no apology for stressing throughout my account of Blunt. Another, linked, help in writing this book has been a gradual evolution in attitudes to homosexuality, which has caused friends and lovers of Blunt to speak much more openly about these sides of his life than would once have been possible. A last crucial factor has been the avalanche of material about spying which has been let loose by the end of the Cold War. | February 2002
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Miranda Carter
Miranda Carter was educated at St. Paul's Girl's School and Exeter College, Oxford. She worked as a publisher and journalist before beginning research on her biography of Anthony Blunt in 1994. She lives in London with her husband and son. This is her first book.