Joining the Gang

Nicholas Penny

  • Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter
    Macmillan, 590 pp, £20.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 333 63350 4

On the afternoon of 15 November 1979 the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that Anthony Blunt, retired Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, fellow of the British Academy, former director of the Courtauld Institute, and the most influential figure in the establishment of art history as an academic subject in this country had indeed, as Private Eye had intimated a week before, and as Fleet Street had long been whispering, spied for the Soviet Union. He had confessed as much in 1964 in return for immunity from prosecution.

Blunt’s immunity had been convenient for the government of the day, and especially so for MI5 (which may also have turned a blind eye to Kim Philby’s defection in 1963), since his arrest and trial would certainly have led to a thorough investigation of British intelligence organisations, entailing drastic changes (or the expensive pretence that such changes had taken place). It may also have been prudent, a way of ensuring that the Soviets would not discover what had happened, though this is seldom conceded.

In November 1979 it was expedient for Thatcher to expose Blunt, and thereby appease the press and distance herself from soft establishment protectors and liberal apologists. Miranda Carter astutely observes that the sensational exposure deflected mounting demands to investigate MI5 and was therefore as politically convenient as the earlier immunity had been.

For weeks after Thatcher’s announcement, Blunt was hunted by the press and for months after they had found him he was under virtual house arrest. He wasn’t wanted by the police, although there seemed little awareness of this, and the press had no other purpose than to humiliate him with harassment and then to document their achievement with photographs. They discovered that Blunt had recently given a lecture in Oxford and had been the guest of Francis Haskell, the professor of art history there. Haskell was obviously suspect, since he had a Russian mother and a Russian wife and had been to King’s College, Cambridge, so the press surrounded his house, making it impossible for him to go out. I was staying there at the time and had to push my way past them to obtain basic provisions. They also repeatedly telephoned in the early hours of the morning, using the names of his friends and claiming to have an urgent message for ‘Anthony’. Those who thought one or two people from the ‘more respectable’ papers might have been invited in to see that Blunt was not hiding there had no idea of the aggressive manner of this mob. Outraged by the elusiveness of their prey, they took to publishing allegations about Blunt which had no foundation at all: notably that he was responsible for the deaths of 49 wartime Dutch special agents, a story the Sunday Telegraph refused to retract and which is still repeated.

Some latent reservoir of grievance and prejudice had fermented, and now issued, after an alarming swelling of the veins, in statements such as, ‘I’d like to strangle the bastard,’ from the lips of normally gentle people. It was as odd as the time, years later, when all sorts of sober and even sceptical people would gaze into the distance with moist eyes and declare of the Princess of Wales: ‘I really think she was a saint.’ It was hard in the late 1970s, especially if you had any association with art history, to avoid having the conversation that drifted from Bloomsbury to Cambridge to liberal academics and homosexuality and then circled E.M. Forster’s remark about choosing between betraying one’s friend and one’s country, and having the ‘guts’ to betray the latter. Blunt himself had cited this, rather limply, to try to explain his treachery. And in one important respect it may provide a clue to his conduct. As Carter reminds us, ‘for Blunt’s generation of homosexual men – and for earlier generations, including Forster’s, obviously – ‘friends in innumerable ways provided a support network in a hostile world, and defended the individual against the state. They kept one’s secrets.’ It was odd, though, how this maxim would put a halt to the conversation. That coyly demotic ‘guts’ takes us back to the days when the hearties bullied us to play harder for house or school, but the headmaster himself would respect a reluctance to betray the friends who had been smoking behind the labs. What are the particular circumstances in which our loyalties might be tested? What if the friend were bent on leaking details of Allied defences to the Nazis? What if the friend were assisting terrorists who might destroy the community to which we belong, and which includes other friends?

The British Legion’s current advertisements for www.poppy.org.uk weirdly suggest that the flower commemorates those who laid down their life ‘for a friend’. The millions in question, in fact, died ‘for King and Country’ and many thoughtful people in the decade after the Great War believed that their sacrifice brought patriotism into disrepute. Carter’s book makes an imaginative effort to reconstruct what Blunt would have felt in the 1930s. No doubt he was moved by the hunger marches, certainly he was stirred by the death of John Cornford, appalled by Fascism, and disturbed by the plight of Jewish scholars, but what remains clear from her account is that Blunt took little serious interest in politics and had very little knowledge of, or exposure to, the unemployed or oppressed – or indeed the working class in any form anywhere – through whom, and for whom, the Revolution was to take place. He was joining an intellectual club and there was the added thrill that it was also a gang, that he could feel he belonged to the world of action. In many respects it was the opposite of the society that he had earlier joined in Cambridge, the Apostles, with which previous writers have tried tediously to connect Blunt’s Marxism. Joining the gang hardly seems to have involved much Forsterian soul-searching: that came, if it came at all, when it gradually dawned on him what the Soviets, whom he had at first supposed to be the Comintern, were really about. Not to have joined the gang would of course have divided him from Guy Burgess, the inexplicably magnetic monster whom Blunt adored. And Blunt certainly did not have the heart – or guts – to do that.

Neil MacGregor, a former pupil of Blunt, expounded persuasively to Carter his perception of the mythic quality of Blunt’s portaits of the artists whom he most admired. He also speculates that Blunt’s biography can be divided into phases corresponding to the artists about whom he wrote: Blake, Poussin, Borromini. In this account, Blake is the young man’s artist. Carter makes no comment on this: her book provides a limited account of Blunt’s work as an art historian. But she does make it quite clear that Blunt was attracted by Poussin long before he took an interest in Blake. His most significant work on Blake was his essay in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes of 1943. (He returned to the topic with a book based on a series of lectures published in 1959.) Far from dwelling on the fervour of committed youth, Blunt dramatised Blake’s disillusioned withdrawal into the ‘world of the intellect’. Perhaps he did have a Blakean phase, but it is hard to believe that he ever shared the poet’s intense sympathy with society’s victims. And, to be fair, he never made any such claim.

Beyond the obvious fact that some of his artistic heroes lived, or came to live, in austere detachment (not true of Picasso, however, who certainly meant as much to Blunt as Blake did), attempts to decode Blunt’s art-historical writings as autobiography are seldom of value. He kept his life as a Soviet spy, as also his life as a homosexual, largely separate from his activities as a senior academic, teacher and writer. Writing about Carter’s biography in the TLS, George Steiner says that Blunt ‘risked or courted exposure at almost every point; sexual, political and, it may be, in one or two instances, professional’. This is unconvincing. Everyone who knew anything about Blunt knew that he was homosexual, something he did not flaunt but never denied. The one or two instances of professional risk-taking that Steiner has in mind seem to refer to the attacks on his scholarship by Denis Mahon, but the logic of this argument is impossible to follow. Some close friends also supposed that Blunt must have got a kick out of danger, and Dadie Rylands, who knew him very well as a young man, noted that he liked to be ‘melted and tempted’ by the company of the outrageous Guy Burgess. Nevertheless, it is hard to find evidence of ‘delight’ and ‘exhilaration’ in his academic conduct, and if he experienced the ‘intoxication of playing this wonderfully complex game, like a dazzling piece of choreography’, as one friend told Carter he did, we are given no evidence of it here: indeed, it isn’t clear that the game was so ‘wonderfully complex’. What does seem clear is that by 1950 he had narrowed his life and become, in the words of Michael Hirst – one of his appointments to the staff of the Courtauld Institute – ‘a driven man and increasingly closed in’, relentlessly working on his scholarly books but rarely listening to music or reading outside his field of study, with little interest in society, let alone the high society into which Steiner and others suppose him to have climbed. Blunt himself attributed his survival to alcohol and hard work, and there is much evidence of this. Thus, on the day of the last lecture he gave in Oxford, when he already knew that the press were after him, he arrived early at the Haskells’ house and buried himself in page proofs of his host’s new book. When the lecture was over, he asked as usual for a large glass of whisky.

After his exposure Blunt is said to have boasted to his brother Wilfred about his acting ability. He can only have meant that he had not betrayed himself, had kept a mask in place. If he had had any acting ability he would have performed very differently in the famous interview that he gave after his exposure. Nothing was less likely to disarm his critics than his use of the French word canard – to take only one small example. But if he had had any real understanding of the scale of the indignation he had provoked, he would never have given the interview in the first place. Surely it was the hard work and the drink that kept him from dwelling too much on what he had done and on how it must have seemed to others. His intelligence may have helped him to rationalise his actions, but he also anaesthetised a part of his mind, and numbness if not denial was a precondition for the stoic courage he later displayed. Unlike Goronwy Rees and Michael Straight, whose need to falsify their own past was connected with a desperate urge to cleanse themselves (which led inevitably to Blunt’s exposure), Blunt seems never to have cast himself in the role of hero or villain or victim, but instead devised a way of not seeing the past at all vividly. This is surely the reason his own autobiographical efforts are so dull.

Carter’s book is based on years of interviews with people who knew Blunt, many of whom – Dadie Rylands, Noel Annan, Isaiah Berlin, Francis Haskell, Michael Kitson, Ernst Gombrich – have since died. She also includes written evidence from the distant past: letters by Blunt’s schoolfriend Louis MacNeice, for instance, and most startlingly, the brisk character sketches written for his masters in Moscow by Arnold Deutsch, the agent who recruited Blunt in London. There are some instances when she might have ignored the testimony she records. John Pope-Hennessy, writing after Blunt’s exposure, said that he had encountered ‘barred passages’ in Blunt’s mind. Had he commented on these sinister subterranean regions at the time it would have been interesting, but only as evidence that Blunt didn’t want Pope-Hennessy strolling among his mental furniture. But when the source is important, Carter is shrewdly sceptical, and the use she makes of Rees or Straight, to say nothing of the self-serving memoirs of Blunt’s NKVD contact Yuri Modin and the grievance-twisted outpourings of Peter Wright, is exceedingly judicious. Indeed, the book can be read not only as a biography but as an exemplary account of the unreliability of interested witnesses.

Blunt’s friendship with the talented artist Eric Hebborn is of special interest since his homosexual life here overlapped with his art-historical interests. It seems likely that Blunt broke with Hebborn, or distanced himself, when he understood that Hebborn was engaged in forgery – Blunt’s enemies might claim that it was when he realised that Hebborn was likely to be caught out. In assessing their relationship it is essential to bear in mind that Hebborn’s statements were frequently as false as his art, and his claim that Blunt nudged him in the direction of forgery loses all credit when considered alongside his other insinuations.

Then there are Denis Mahon’s two quarrels with Blunt. The first concerned the chronology of Poussin’s early work and revealed some of the limitations of Blunt’s approach. The second concerned the authenticity of a Poussin that Mahon had discovered. This time Blunt’s honesty was at issue. Blunt was reluctant to admit that he had dismissed the painting on the basis of a photograph and Mahon, understandably indignant, puts this down to Blunt’s practice, as a Soviet spy, of being ‘economical with the truth’, indeed of habitually lying. Clearly, anyone involved in intelligence is likely to have to tell lies, and the British double-cross, feeding false information to the Nazis, must have given a stimulus as well as glamour to ingenious mendacity. But Blunt’s work for the Soviets seems to have involved him in being uneconomical with the truth, in feeding reliable facts to our allies on the Eastern Front. (Carter has discovered evidence that the Soviets were never convinced that they were getting the truth from Blunt, never had time to study much of what he sent them, and would have much preferred to be told lies.)

Many of us have something in our past which we fear may emerge. Many of us also have separate lives, secret passions, sneaking off work to play golf or meet a lover. Perhaps this is one reason it is so fascinating to read about Blunt, and perhaps also the reason he excited such loathing. Blunt betrayed his country and yet glided round royal palaces. That must be why he so captured the public imagination.

Blunt cultivated a distant manner that could easily be misread and he exercised power in a way that was sure to be resented, so it is not surprising that one MI5 secretary considered him to be an ‘ice-cold bastard, knowing that anyone who was not important to him did not exist’. This is a verdict from which Steiner finds it ‘not easy to dissent’, but it is a verdict which is repeatedly refuted by the evidence of pupils, of both sexes and diverse social origins, to whose ideas he was so open and with whom he was so patient and unpatronising. Carter not only documents Blunt’s great success as a teacher but as a promoter of numerous educational ventures, from exemplary scholarly catalogues to the creation of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which made the Royal Collection far more accessible to the public. What he achieved seems heroic when we consider the ghosts he had to live with and the depressing private life about which so many friends and ex-lovers speak frankly here.