Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt, the son of a clergyman, was born in Bournemouth on 26th September, 1907. He was educated at Marlborough School and Trinity College. While at Cambridge University he became friends with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Michael Straight. All of them became secret supporters of the Communist Party.

In the early 1930s Blunt was recruited as a Soviet agent by James Klugmann. He was a Fellow of Trinity and in this post worked as a talent-spotter for the Soviet Union. A homosexual, it is claimed he blackmailed other homosexuals into spying for the Soviets. Theodore Maly was his Soviet controller.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Blunt joined the British Army. In 1939 he was sent to France where he served with the Army Intelligence Corps. When the German Army invaded in May 1940 he returned to England. Soon afterwards he was recruited by MI5. Blunt was placed in charge of the section that dealt with examining the communications of foreign embassies. This enabled him to pass valuable information to the Soviet Union. He later became the personal assistant to Guy Liddell, Deputy Director-General of MI5. In 1944 Blunt was responsible for liaison between MI5 and Allied Supreme Headquarters concerning the invasion of Europe.

At the end of the war he was sent to Germany on a secret mission for the Royal family. A few months later Blunt retired from MI5 to become Surveyor of the King's Pictures. He continued to be a member of the spy ring led by Kim Philby and in 1951 helped Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to defect to the Soviet Union. Blunt, who had been seen in the company of Burgess and Maclean just before they disappeared, was interviewed by eleven times by Arthur Martin and Jim Skardon but was eventually cleared of any involvement in their spying activities.

When George VI died in 1953 Queen Elizabeth II asked Blunt to become Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. He was also the author of several books including Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700 (1953), Nicolas Poussin (1967), Sicilian Baroque (1968), Picasso's Guernica (1969) and Neapolitan Baroque and Rococo Architecture (1975).

In 1963 Michael Straight was offered the post of the chairmanship of the Advisory Council on the Arts by President John F. Kennedy. Aware that he would be vetted - and his background investigated - he approached Arthur Schlesinger, one of Kennedy's advisers, and told him that Blunt had recruited him as a spy while an undergraduate at Trinity College. Schlesinger suggested that he told his story to the FBI.

Straight's information was passed on to MI5 and Arthur Martin, the intelligence agency's principal molehunter, went to America to interview him. Straight confirmed the story, and agreed to testify in a British court if necessary. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued that Straight's information was "the decisive breakthrough in MI5's investigation of Anthony Blunt".

Peter Wright, who took part in the meetings about Anthony Blunt case, argues in his book, Spycatcher (1987) that Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, decided to give Blunt immunity from prosecution because of his hostility towards the Labour Party and the damage it would do to the Conservative Party: "Hollis and many of his senior staff were acutely aware of the damage any public revelation of Blunt's activities might do themselves, to MI5, and to the incumbent Conservative Government. Harold Macmillan had finally resigned after a succession of security scandals, culminating in the Profumo affair. Hollis made little secret of his hostility to the Labour Party, then riding high in public opinion, and realized only too well that a scandal on the scale that would be provoked by Blunt's prosecution would surely bring the tottering Government down."

Blunt was interviewed by Arthur Martin at the Courtauld Institute on 23rd April 1964. Martin later wrote that when he mentioned Straight's name he "noticed that by this time Blunt's right cheek was twitching a good deal". Martin offered Blunt "an absolute assurance that no action would be taken against him if he now told the truth". Martin recalled: "He went out of the room, got himself a drink, came back and stood at the tall window looking out on Portman Square. I gave him several minutes of silence and then appealed to him to get it off his chest. He came back to his chair and confessed." He admitted being a Soviet agent and named twelve other associates as spies including Straight, John Cairncross, Leo Long, Peter Ashby and Brian Symon.

Arthur Martin was disappointed when it was discovered that Roger Hollis and Attorney-General Sir John Hobson decided not to put Anthony Blunt on trial. Martin once again began to argue that there was still a Soviet spy working at the centre of MI5. Hollis thought Martin's suggestion was highly damaging to the organization and ordered Martin to be suspended from duty.

Blunt continued as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures in 1972. He also taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Eight years after confessing to being a Soviet spy he was appointed Adviser of the Queens's Pictures and Drawings. A post he held until his retirement in 1978.

Blunt's role as a Soviet agent was exposed in Andrew Boyle's book, The Climate of Treason in 1979. This resulted in his knighthood, awarded in 1956, being annulled. Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons that the information that had led to Straight's confession was not "usable as evidence on which to base a prosecution".

Anthony Blunt died on 26th March, 1983.

Primary Sources

(1) Chapman Pincher, Their Trade is Treachery (1981)

Blunt was one of the most damaging spies ever to operate in Britain, contrary to the common belief that, compared with Philby or Maclean, he was in the second division. His crimes against his country, dragged out of him during hundreds of hours of taped interrogations, are such an indictment of wartime security that every effort has been made to cover them from public knowledge.

(2) Goronwy Rees met Anthony Blunt on 28th May, 1951. Rees disagreed with Blunt when he used E. M. Forster's view that betraying one's friend was worse than betraying one's country. He wrote about this meeting in his autobiography A Chapter of Accidents (1977)

He (Anthony Blunt) was greatly distressed and said he would like to see me. On Monday May 28th he came to my house in the country, and on an almost ideally beautiful English summer day we sat by the river and I gave him my reasons for thinking that Guy had gone to the Soviet Union: his violent anti-Americanism, his certainty that America would involve us all in a Third World War, most of all the fact that he had been and perhaps still was a Soviet agent. He pointed out, very convincingly as it seemed to me, that these were really not very good reasons for denouncing Guy to MI;. His anti-Americanism was an attitude which was shared by many liberal-minded people and if this alone were sufficient reason to drive him to the Soviet Union, Moscow at that moment would be besieged by defectors seeking asylum. On the other hand, my belief that he might be a Soviet agent rested simply on one single remark made by him years ago and apparently never repeated to anyone else; in any case Guy's public professions of anti-Americanism were hardly what one would expect from a professional Soviet agent. Most of all he pointed out that Guy was after all one of my, as of his, oldest friends and to make the kind of allegations I apparently proposed to make about him was not, to say the least of it, the act of a friend. He was the Cambridge liberal conscience at its very best, reasonable, sensible, and firm in the faith that personal relations are the highest of all human values.

I said Forster's antithesis was a false one. One's country was not some abstract conception which it might be relatively easy to sacrifice for the sake of an individual; it was itself made up of a dense network of individual and social relationships in which loyalty to one particular person formed only a single strand. In that case, he said, I was being rather irrational because after all Guy had told me he was a spy a very long time ago and I had not thought it necessary to tell anyone. I said that perhaps I was a very irrational person; but until then I had not really been convinced that Guy had been telling the truth.

(3) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Blunt was one of the most elegant, charming, and cultivated men I have met. He could speak five languages, and the range and depth of his knowledge was profoundly impressive. It was not limited solely to the arts; in fact, as he was proud of telling me, his first degree at Cambridge was in mathematics, and he retained a lifelong fascination with the philosophy of science.

The most striking thing about Blunt was the contradiction between his evident strength of character and his curious vulnerability. It was this contradiction which caused people of both sexes to fall in love with him. He was obviously homosexual, but in fact, as I learned from him, he had had at least two love affairs with women, who remained close to him throughout his life. Blunt was capable of slipping from art historian and scholar one minute, to intelligence bureaucrat the next, to spy, to waspish homosexual, to languid establishmentarian. But the roles took their toll on him as a man. I realized soon after we began meeting that Blunt, far from being liberated by the immunity offer, continued to carry a heavy burden. It was not a burden of guilt, for he felt none. He felt pain for deceiving Tess Rothschild, and other close friends like Dick White and Guy Liddell (he was in tears at Guy's funeral), but it was the pain of what had to be done, rather than the pain of what might have been avoided. His burden was the weight of obligation placed on him by those friends, accomplices, and lovers whose secrets he knew, and which he felt himself bound to keep.

(4) Margaret Thatcher, statement in the House of Commons (November 1979)

It was considered important to gain Blunt's cooperation in the continuing investigations by the security authorities, following the defections of Burgess, Maclean and Philby, into Soviet penetration of the security and intelligence services and other public services during and after the war. Accordingly the Attorney-General authorized the offer of immunity to Blunt if he confessed. The Queen's Private Secretary was informed both of Blunt's confession and of the immunity from prosecution, on the basis of which it had been made. Blunt was not required to resign his appointment in the Royal Household, which was unpaid. It carried with it no access to classified information and no risk to security and the security authorities thought it desirable not to put at risk his cooperation.