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Photograph of Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt
© Courtauld Institute of Art


Anthony Blunt (1907-1983)

1933 was an important year for Anthony Blunt. It was the year he bought Eliezer and Rebecca, a hitherto undiscovered Poussin. It was also the year he first travelled to Moscow. A committed Marxist, he joined the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, shortly after.

A brilliant art historian, at the same time Soviet spy, Blunt was born the son of a clergyman in Bournemouth in 1907. Still young, his family moved to Paris, where happy childhood years nurtured a lifelong affection for all things French. Educated at Marlborough College, Blunt then attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Mathematics and Modern Languages. Elected a Fellow in 1932, he tutored in French language and literature and dedicated himself to the study of French and Italian art. While the university did not acknowledge History of Art as an official subject then (it only introduced Part II of the History of Art Tripos in 1970 and Part I of the History of Art Tripos in 1999), he nonetheless established himself as an acknowledged expert on French art and Poussin, in particular. It was in these years that Blunt joined the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society which was Marxist at the time. Here he met Guy Burgess (1911-1963) and Kim Philby (1912-1988), both of whom he recruited as agents for the NKVD/KGB. Donald Maclean (1913-1983) he recruited later, but by the outbreak of World War II the Cambridge Five, the infamous spy ring, was complete.

In 1939, Blunt joined the British army and served as an officer in France. In 1940, following the German invasion and occupation of northern France, he returned to Britain and joined the Security Service MI5. Here his duty consisted of keeping neutral missions in London under close surveillance. A member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, he had access to classified reports and was on the distribution list for Ultra material. The latter detailed the results of German codes broken at Bletchley Park and it was this material, central to British intelligence, which Blunt passed to Russian interests between 1941 and 1945.

Appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 1945 (a post he held until 1973, serving Queen Elizabeth II from 1952) and director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1947 (a post he held until 1974), Blunt was awarded a knighthood in 1956. By this time, he had assisted Burgess and Maclean to defect to Moscow, but had also distanced himself from the KGB. Appointed Professor of the History of Art in London in 1960 and seemingly at the top of his career, one of his recruits, the American Michael Straight (1916-2004), exposed him to M15. Blunt confessed on 23 April 1964, but was granted immunity from prosecution and a promise of secrecy in return for information. As years passed, however, and Blunt continued to lunch with the Queen, some M15 officers set out to expose the traitor. They leaked the story to Andrew Boyle, a British author with an intelligence background, and in 1979 his Climate of Treason sparked the question: could ‘Maurice’ be Sir Anthony Blunt? Finally, asked in Parliament on 16 November 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher named Blunt as the ‘fourth man’ of the Cambridge Five. He was promptly stripped of his knighthood and removed from the Fellowship of Trinity College, Cambridge. He died in disgrace and shunned in London in 1983.


Selected Bibliography

J. Banville, The Untouchable, Vintage, 1997

A. Bennett, Single Spies (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution), Faber & Faber, 1989 – Winner of Oliver Award: England’s best comedy for 1989

A. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700, Penguin, 1953

A. Blunt, The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue, Phaidon, 1966

A. Boyle, The Climate of Treason: Five who Spied for Russia, Hutchinson, 1979

M. Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Macmillan, 2001

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Nicolas Poussin, Eliezer and Rebecca

Nicolas Poussin
Eliezer and Rebecca
France, 1660 to 1665
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge