and the art of spying
IN the autumn of 1979, Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and distinguished pillar of academia, faced total ruin: his career, his life and his reputation were all on the brink of destruction. Blunt was about to be exposed as a KGB spy. Ben Macintyre recalls how the news broke . . . NO other member of the so-called ‘‘ Cambridge Five’’ spy ring had maintained so extraordinary a double life for so long. None had risen so high in public honour and had so far to fall. Of all the Soviet spies in Britain — Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and others who are still coming to light — Blunt was in some ways the most enigmatic, his motives and convictions the hardest to read. Here was a man who enjoyed all the appurtenances of a capitalist society, yet had dedicated his early life, secretly, to destroying that society. He embraced Marxism, but was never a Communist. He seemed to be embedded in the British Establishment, but as a homosexual he was perhaps always an outsider.
The Blunt story has been explored from many angles, in drama by Alan Bennett, in fiction, in film and in Miranda Carter’s biography. Blunt has been explored as a traitor, as an ideologue and as an intellectual. But in his new book, Brian Sewell explores Anthony Blunt as a friend and colleague, a man to whom he felt extraordinarily close while always being held at a distance, as the following extract shows. ‘‘ I knew almost nothing of his personal and private friends, nothing of old loyalties,’’ Sewell writes. Yet Sewell was a witness to, and a participant in, the last act of Blunt’s exposure, when the spy’s old loyalties came back to haunt and then destroy him.
Blunt was a penetration agent, a spy specifically recruited to burrow into and expose the secrets of another spy service. He was one of the most successful moles in history. He was already a Cambridge don when he was recruited into Soviet intelligence by his friend Guy Burgess; like many other young men of the time, he saw the Soviet Union as the only bulwark against fascism. He believed he was working in the ‘‘ cause of peace’’ and continued in that belief, apparently, even after Hitler’s unholy alliance with Stalin under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Blunt was given the codename ‘‘ Tony’’. (An odd choice given that it was, in fact, his real name; either a brilliant double-bluff by the Soviets, or amazingly stupid.) In 1940 he was transferred from the Army to MI5 and began to prove his worth as a spy. As a rising star with the security service, he had access to the most secret information, including the decrypted wireless messages from Bletchley Park. He passed on every scrap of intelligence to Moscow. When his colleagues went out to lunch, Blunt would often stay behind and riffle through their desks and filing cabinets for more information.
Every week, between nine and ten in the morning, he met his Soviet controller in a different part of London to hand over a briefcase filled with documents; the following day, they would meet again and the documents, having been copied overnight, would be returned. In five years, Agent Tony handed over no fewer than 1771 documents, including many files that ran to hundreds of pages. In the spring of 1944, he handed over the plans for the D-Day landings and the complex deception plan surrounding the operation. On some aspects of British intelligence, Stalin was rather better informed than Churchill. This was the summit of Blunt’s spy career. ‘‘ It has given me great pleasure to pass on the names of every MI5 officer to the Russians,’’ he told a colleague, who seems to have dismissed his words as a joke.
In 1945, Blunt left MI5 to return to his academic career at the Courtauld Institute. Yet he continued to work as a part-time KGB courier, even after becoming Surveyor of the King’s (later the Queen’s) Pictures. Come the revolution, he intended to be Commissar for the Arts. Yet the past was already stalking him. When his friends Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow in 1951, Blunt was questioned, very gently. Blunt himself described the inquiries of his former MI5 colleagues as nothing more than comfortable conversations. The vague suspicions did not prevent him from being knighted in 1956.
Blunt never contemplated defection to the Soviet Union. Languid and refined, he enjoyed his life in the West, with his pictures and his honours. He had no desire to swap that for the rigours of life under Communism. He was finally exposed in 1961 when a former Cambridge contemporary, Michael Straight, got a US government job and, fearing a full FBI investigation, confessed that Blunt had rec-