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Blunt, Anthony Fredericklocked

  • Michael Kitson
  • , revised by Miranda Carter

Anthony Frederick Blunt (1907–1983)

by Snowdon, 1963

Blunt, Anthony Frederick (1907–1983), art historian and spy, was born at Holy Trinity vicarage, Bournemouth, Hampshire, on 26 September 1907, the third and youngest son (there were no daughters) of the Revd (Arthur) Stanley Vaughan Blunt (1870–1929) and his wife, Hilda Violet (1880–1969), daughter of Henry Master of the Madras civil service. His brothers, Wilfrid Jasper Walter Blunt (1901–1987) and Christopher Evelyn Blunt (1904–1987), were a teacher of art and a numismatist respectively. Blunt's father was a kinsman of the poet, anti-imperialist, and libertine Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, while his mother's family were acquaintances of the future Queen Mary: both these connections were to have a curious significance for Blunt's future career. As a child in Paris, where his father was the British embassy chaplain, Blunt acquired a lasting enthusiasm for French art and architecture, a passion encouraged by his eldest brother, Wilfrid, a future art master at Eton College. By the age of sixteen, at Marlborough College (where with his best friend Louis MacNeice he was part of a group of rebellious young aesthetes), he was producing precociously fluent defences of modern art, much to the infuriation of the deeply conservative art teacher—an early indication of his academic talent and his instinctive contrariness.

Cambridge and the NKVD

In 1926 Blunt won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating there with a second in part one of the mathematical tripos (1927) and a first in both parts (1928 and 1930) of the modern languages tripos (French and German). In 1932 he was elected a fellow of the college on the strength of a dissertation on artistic theory in Italy and France during the Renaissance and seventeenth century; he remained there until 1937. By 1932 he was already writing for the Cambridge Review and within a year had become The Spectator's regular art critic, a position he held until 1938.

While still an undergraduate, Blunt was invited to join the Apostles. The significance of Blunt's membership of this secret, all-male Cambridge debating society has generally been overstressed. In 1928 its main attraction for him lay in its strong links with Bloomsbury, then at its height as the self-styled cutting edge of avant-garde art and liberal social mores. At school Blunt had adopted Roger Fry's and Clive Bell's ideas on modern art; now through the Apostles he took on Bloomsbury values, which have been summed up as the cult of the intellect for its own sake, belief in freedom of thought and expression irrespective of the conclusions to which this freedom might lead, and the denial of all moral restraints other than loyalty to friends. An influential minority of the society's members were, moreover, like Blunt himself, homosexual at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in Britain.

In 1933–4 Blunt—hitherto the image of an elegant, apolitical, social young academic—began to take an interest in Marxism under the influence of his friend the charming, scandalous Guy Burgess, a fellow Apostle, who had recently converted to communism. Blunt's move to the left can be plotted in his art reviews, in which he turned from a Bloomsbury acolyte into an increasingly dogmatic defender of social realism. He eventually came to attack even his favourite contemporary artist, Picasso, for the painting Guernica's insufficient incorporation of communism.

According to documents in the Russian intelligence archives, it was just at this time, spring 1937, that Burgess introduced Blunt to the Hungarian former priest Theo Maly, an agent of the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB. Blunt was asked to become a ‘talent spotter’—that is, to find students who might be willing to work clandestinely for communism. He recruited two young men, Michael Straight and Leo Long, and sized up a third, John Cairncross, before the entire NKVD London residence was recalled to Moscow and caught up in Stalin's purges in summer 1937.

Blunt's work for the NKVD has sometimes been put down to a sexual passion for Burgess. Certainly he was fascinated by Burgess's outrageousness, which was the antithesis of his own reserved self-discipline, and they may have had a brief sexual affair at the beginning of their long friendship. However, Blunt's attraction to spying was more complex. He possessed a streak of unexorcised rebelliousness. His initial commitment to the left in the 1930s was sincere, though this was combined with an undeniable pleasure in the potential for secrecy and intrigue of his position. In 1939, when the Soviet–Nazi pact destroyed the USSR's claims to champion anti-fascism, he seems to have suffered no obvious pangs of conscience.

London and MI5

In summer 1937 Blunt left Cambridge to work at the Warburg Institute in London, where he met a generation of Jewish émigré academics who greatly influenced his art history. He performed no further services for Moscow until the NKVD's London resident re-established contact in December 1940 and was amazed to discover that Blunt had joined MI5. With the new demands wartime placed on it, MI5 was drafting in clever academics; Blunt was hired on the recommendation of his old Cambridge friend Victor Rothschild. His main task was to gather information about foreign embassies by planting agents—usually in the guise of domestic servants—and clandestinely opening diplomatic bags. He also worked directly for MI5's most influential officer, Guy Liddell, overhauled its surveillance system, and ran liaison with other secret departments. This brought him into contact with British intelligence's most sensitive secret, Ultra, the information produced at Bletchley Park from the breaking of German military codes.

The question of whether Blunt's actions led to deaths is hard to answer. As MI5's remit was internal security, most of the information to which he had access related to espionage on British soil. On the other hand, for six months before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the USSR was allied to Germany and thus not only an enemy of Britain, but also potentially handing Blunt's information to the Germans, though there is no evidence that they did. Moreover, Blunt was a diligent spy—he brought to it the same conscientiousness that made him a good art historian—and went out of his way to know every area of MI5's work and to pass on everything he came across. The KGB archives have over 1000 documents which he passed, though this hardly compares with the other Cambridge spies: between mid-1944 and the end of the war Burgess passed over 4000 documents. Whether the Soviets took advantage of the material is another complicated question. The KGB (as the NKVD was renamed in 1954) was so inefficient that much material was never translated, and so sure that the Soviet embassy was being watched by MI5 that it took Blunt's accurate assertions to the contrary as lies. It also disapproved of the fact that Blunt and Burgess shared a flat in Bentinck Street famous for its lively parties. Indeed between 1942 and 1944 Russian intelligence became so suspicious of Blunt, Burgess, and Philby that it seriously considered having them assassinated. At the end of the war Blunt left MI5. Thereafter he had few secrets to impart, though he passed gossip from his former MI5 colleagues and documents from Burgess, until the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951. Yuri Modin, his controller, tried to persuade Blunt to flee too, but he refused.

Surveyor of the king's pictures and director of the Courtauld Institute of Art

All through the war Blunt had continued with his art history; even his Soviet controllers noted that it was the only subject by which he seemed to be really excited. Already before the war he saw that the refugee scholars at the Warburg Institute had brought with them from Hamburg both an intellectual rigour and a soundly based historical method that were new to the study of the art of the past in Britain. In 1937–9 he published scholarly articles in the Warburg Journal on diverse topics, including 'The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in 17th-century France' and Blake's Ancient of Days, and began his great work on the seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin, characteristically with an article showing that Poussin's 'Notes on painting' were not original but were largely copied from obscure ancient and Renaissance literary sources. Blunt also helped to establish friendly relations between the Warburg and Courtauld institutes, becoming deputy director of the latter in 1939. In 1940 most of his fellowship dissertation was published as Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600; written with his customary lucidity and stylistic grace, it remains a useful introduction to its subject. During the Second World War he wrote further articles in periodicals and a book on the French architect François Mansart (1941); in 1945 he published a catalogue of the French drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

In the same year, 1945, to the puzzlement of his friends, who knew of his political sympathies though not of his activities as a spy, Blunt accepted appointment as surveyor of the king's (after 1952 the queen's) pictures (a role that later inspired Alan Bennett's play A Question of Attribution, 1988). One motive for taking the job may have been to deflect suspicion if one of his fellow spies had been caught: who would suspect a senior royal servant? He also enjoyed being in charge of such an extraordinary collection, and was responsible for professionalizing its care, bringing in restorers and academics to contribute their services, often on a tiny budget. In 1962 he oversaw the opening of the Queen's Gallery. He remained surveyor until 1972, when his deputy, Oliver Millar, who had been doing most of the day-to-day work for many years, took over.

Blunt's appointment has caused much lurid speculation, some of it stemming from a series of trips he made between 1945 and 1947 to Westphalia and Hesse in Germany and Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, to recover a number of objects which the king did not want to fall into occupying hands, American or Soviet. These included the crown jewels of Hanover. The rumour that Blunt rescued from Hesse a series of letters proving the duke of Windsor had made a deal with the Nazis seems quite unfounded.

In 1947 Blunt became director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and professor of the history of art in the University of London. Thenceforth the institute was his home (he had a flat at the top of the building, designed by Robert Adam, in Portman Square) and the centre of his life. In almost every sense he was a superb director. He had a natural authority, an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, and a winning way with students and younger colleagues. Teaching more by example than by precept, he inspired those around him to give of their best. Under him the Courtauld became the principal centre for training art historians in Britain, with a worldwide reputation for excellence. The first phase of Blunt's scholarly career was crowned by a masterly survey in the Pelican History of Art series: Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700 (1953). Lucid, penetrating, and comprehensive, this is still the best study of its subject and is perhaps Blunt's single most successful book.

The next dozen years, spent mainly working on Poussin, culminated in the exhibition Blunt curated at the Louvre in 1960 and by his monograph (1967) on the artist, but were marred by his bitter dispute with the art historian Sir Denis Mahon. Mahon claimed, not without some justice, that Blunt had mistaken the chronology of Poussin's paintings and had overstressed the artist's intellectual, at the expense of his visual, qualities. Blunt took this hard, not least because in some sense he identified with Poussin, seeing in the artist qualities which he valued in himself: clarity, scepticism in religious matters, subordination of emotion to reason. At the height of the dispute he appears to have deliberately blocked the reattribution of a lost Poussin that Mahon owned which turned out to be authentic. Nevertheless, Blunt's book, which concentrates on the intellectual content and context of Poussin's work, is still a landmark in modern writing on the artist. His numerous other publications ranged in subject from William Blake to Picasso to baroque architecture, the passion of his later years.

His commitment to his work impelled Blunt to take on more roles: in 1948 he became the National Trust's first picture adviser, put on exhibitions at the Royal Academy, went on foreign lecture tours, edited numerous books, and sat on every influential art committee. He was knighted in 1956, appointed to the Légion d'honneur in 1958, and received a series of honorary fellowships, before retiring in 1974.

Exposure and death

Yet all this time Blunt was at risk of exposure as a former spy. He was interrogated frequently by the security services during the 1950s but gave away nothing. Outwardly he seemed utterly in control, ever the composed academic, but his secret took its toll: in 1945 he was hospitalized with exhaustion; from the 1950s he took large doses of seconal and drank a bottle of spirits a day; in 1953 the strain brought on an attack of Bell's palsy which left one side of his face paralysed for several years. Before the war he had been known as an expansive and charming party giver. Now he turned inward, concentrating on his work and the Courtauld. Although those in his field were often surprised by his generosity and kindness, he kept intruders at bay with a practised coldness and those outside his circle could find him unpredictable and arrogant. Despite his acknowledged skills as a lecturer he rejected all invitations to introduce himself to a wider audience through radio and television as Kenneth Clark was to do.

In 1964 Michael Straight confessed to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation that he had been recruited to Soviet intelligence and said he was prepared to testify against Blunt. MI5 offered Blunt immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. In the later 1970s the pressure mounted again, as a result of investigations by independent writers on espionage relying on information leaked by former security officers. On 15 November 1979 the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, confirmed in the House of Commons that Blunt had been an agent of, and talent spotter for, Russian intelligence before and during the Second World War, although she added that there was insufficient evidence on which criminal charges could be brought. His knighthood was annulled, as was the honorary fellowship he had held at Trinity College since 1967. He resigned from the Society of Antiquaries at their behest, but a row erupted within the British Academy over his continued membership, many members threatening their own resignation if he was not expelled and many if he was. Its council voted narrowly in favour of his expulsion but the members avoided a vote at the academy's annual general meeting, after which Blunt resigned. The press, radio, and television began a campaign of vilification. Wild rumours accused him of spying for the Germans, of authenticating fakes, of salting away a fortune abroad; he was caricatured as snobbish, imperious, sexually predatory. Blunt outwardly remained cool, completing one book on baroque Rome and starting another on Pietro da Cortona. But the London flat to which he had retired near the Courtauld was besieged by journalists for months. His long-term partner, (William) John Gaskin (1919–1988), attempted suicide. When asked after his exposure how he had managed to survive the strains, Blunt answered, pointing to a glass of whisky, 'With this, and more work and more work' (Margot Wittkower, Interview Transcript, p. 125, Interviews with Art Historians, Getty Research Institute, Research Library 94109).

Undoubtedly some of the agitation was motivated by Blunt's intellectuality and homosexuality as well as by class hatred. It is a striking fact that both Blunt's own actions and the treatment of him not only by the public but also by officials were pervaded at every turn by the class divisions in British society. His career can perhaps best be explained by the fatal conjunction in him of outstanding gifts and a desire to be at once part of the establishment and against it; or, as Sir Isaiah Berlin put it, 'The trouble with Anthony was that he wanted both to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.' He died of a heart attack at his home, 45 Portsea Hall, Portsea Place, Westminster, London, on 26 March 1983 and was cremated on 30 March at Roehampton, London.


  • A. Blunt, ‘From Bloomsbury to Marxism’, Studio International, 186/960 (Nov 1973), 164–8
  • M. Carter, Anthony Blunt: his lives (2001)
  • L. MacNeice, The strings are false (1965)
  • B. Penrose and S. Freeman, Conspiracy of silence (1986)
  • N. West and O. Tsarev, The crown jewels (1998)
  • C. Andrew and O. Gordievsky, KGB: the inside story of its foreign operations, from Lenin to Gorbachev (1990)
  • P. Wright, Spycatcher (1987)
  • J. Costello, Mask of treachery (1988)
  • E. Waterhouse, introduction, Studies in Renaissance and baroque art presented to Anthony Blunt (1967), ix–xi
  • P. Kidson, ‘The recent transformation of art history’, lecture, 10 Nov 1995, Courtauld Inst.
  • N. Annan, ‘Et tu Anthony’, New York Review of Books (Oct 1987), 3–4
  • W. Blunt, Married to a single life (1985)
  • W. Blunt, Slow on the feather (1986)
  • The Times (28 March 1983)
  • private information (2004)
  • d. cert.
  • Daily Mail (31 March 1983)
  • K. Dover, Marginal comment: a memoir (1994)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert. [William John Gaskin]


  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark


  • BBC Sound Archives, Caversham, recordings of art lectures, c.1937–c.1960


Wealth at Death

£862,521: probate, 13 Jan 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1984)


Courtauld Institute of Art, London
private collection
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
King's College, Cambridge