Was the Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt really a Soviet spy? Truth behind The Crown
Season three begins with a fascinating storyline about the Cambridge Spy Ring
By Eleanor Bley Griffiths
Sunday, 17th November 2019 at 8:20 am
The opening episode of The Crown season three introduces us to Sir Anthony Blunt, played by Samuel West.
Here’s what you need to know about the true story behind the Netflix drama:
Who was Anthony Blunt?
Sir Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) was a highly-respected art historian and member of the Royal Household who was unmasked as a Soviet spy. He was also a distant cousin of the Queen’s.
It was during Blunt’s years studying and teaching at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s that he was recruited by the Soviet NKVD, which later evolved into the KGB secret service.
In 1939, war broke out and he joined the British Army; the following year he was recruited to MI5, where he was tasked with keeping neutral missions in London under close surveillance. In his new job he had access to classified reports, including “Ultra intelligence” – the results of German codes broken at Bletchley Park. Throughout the war he passed secret intelligence to his Russian handlers.
After the war, Blunt was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures – continuing in the post under Queen Elizabeth II after she came to the throne in 1952, and accepting a knighthood in 1956.
During his distinguished career as an art historian he was director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a professor at the University of London, and a celebrated author of key academic texts.
What was the Cambridge Spy Ring?
The Cambridge Spy Ring – or the “Cambridge Five” – was a ring of spies in Britain who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II. It took many years for them all to be exposed, and none were ever prosecuted for spying.
The five men were Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951), Kim Philby (who defected in 1963 after years of suspicion), John Cairncross (the last to be discovered), and Anthony Blunt.
Recruited in the 1930s at the University of Cambridge, these students and academics were convinced by Soviet Communism, seeing it as the best defence against the rise of fascism across Europe and the world. Several were members of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society which was (at the time) dedicated to Marxism, and Blunt himself visited the Soviet Union in 1933. In fact, he is thought to have been the main recruiter for the spy ring – though the full picture is still a little murky.
“I was persuaded by Guy Burgess that I could best serve the cause of antifascism by joining him in his work for the Russians,” Blunt said in a later interview. “This was a case of political conscience against loyalty to country. I chose conscience.”
Each of the Cambridge Five pursued careers that put them at the heart of the establishment, enabling them to pass large amounts of intelligence to the Soviet Union. They became diplomats, BBC correspondents, MI6 and MI5 agents, Foreign Office workers, and – in Blunt’s case – a top art historian and curator of the Queen’s art collection.
When the truth began to emerge, it is thought that Blunt helped the other members of the ring to flee the country. But he also distanced himself from the KGB as he built his career as an art historian.
Anthony Frederick Blunt (26 September 1907 – 26 March 1983), styled as Sir Anthony Blunt, KCVO, from 1956 to 1979, was a leading British art historian who in 1964, after being offered immunity from prosecution, confessed to having been a Soviet spy.
Blunt had been a member of the Cambridge Five, a group of spies working for the Soviet Union from some time in the 1930s to at least the early 1950s. His confession, a closely held secret for many years, was revealed publicly by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1979. He was stripped of his knighthood immediately thereafter.
Blunt was professor of art history at the University of London, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. His 1967 monograph on the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin is still widely regarded as a watershed book in art history. His teaching text and reference work Art and Architecture in France 1500–1700, first published in 1953, reached its fifth edition in a slightly revised version by Richard Beresford in 1999, when it was still considered the best account of the subject.
Blunt was born in Bournemouth, Hampshire, the third and youngest son of a vicar, the Revd (Arthur) Stanley Vaughan Blunt (1870–1929), and his wife, Hilda Violet (1880–1969), daughter of Henry Master of the Madras civil service. He was the brother of writer Wilfrid Jasper Walter Blunt and of numismatist Christopher Evelyn Blunt, and the grandnephew of poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.
He was a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: his mother was the second cousin of Elizabeth's father Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. On occasions, Blunt and his two brothers, Christopher and Wilfrid, took afternoon tea at the Bowes-Lyons' London home at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth II.
He was fourth cousin once removed of Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896–1980) 6th Baronet, leader of the British Union of Fascists, both being descended from John Parker Mosley (1722–1798).
Blunt's father, a vicar, was assigned to Paris with the British embassy chapel, and moved his family to the French capital for several years during Anthony's childhood. The young Anthony became fluent in French and experienced intensely the artistic culture closely available to him, stimulating an interest which lasted a lifetime and formed the basis for his later career.
He was educated at Marlborough College, where he joined the college's secret 'Society of Amici', in which he was a contemporary of Louis MacNeice (whose unfinished autobiography The Strings are False contains numerous references to Blunt), John Betjeman and Graham Shepard. He was remembered by historian John Edward Bowle, a year ahead of Blunt at Marlborough, as "an intellectual prig, too preoccupied with the realm of ideas". Bowle thought Blunt had "too much ink in his veins and belonged to a world of rather prissy, cold-blooded, academic puritanism".
Blunt won a scholarship in mathematics to Trinity College, Cambridge. At that time, scholars in Cambridge University were allowed to skip Part I of the Tripos and complete Part II in two years. However, they could not earn a degree in less than three years, hence Blunt spent four years at Trinity and switched to Modern Languages, eventually graduating in 1930 with a first class degree. He taught French at Cambridge and became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1932. His graduate research was in French art history and he travelled frequently to continental Europe in connection with his studies.
Like Guy Burgess, Blunt was known to be homosexual, which was a criminal offence at the time in Britain. Both were members of the Cambridge Apostles (also known as the Conversazione Society), a clandestine Cambridge discussion group of 12 undergraduates, mostly from Trinity and King's Colleges who considered themselves to be the brightest minds. Many were homosexual and also Marxist at that time. Amongst other members also later suspected of being part of the Cambridge spy ring were the American Michael Whitney Straight and Victor Rothschild. Rothschild later worked for MI5 and also gave Blunt £100 to purchase the painting Eliezar and Rebecca by Nicolas Poussin. The painting was sold by Blunt's executors in 1985 for £100,000 (totalling £192,500 with tax remission) and is now in Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum.
Recruitment to Soviet espionage
There are numerous versions of how Blunt was recruited to the NKVD. As a Cambridge don, Blunt visited the Soviet Union in 1933, and was possibly recruited in 1934. In a press conference, Blunt claimed that Guy Burgess recruited him as a spy. The historian Geoff Andrews writes that he was "recruited between 1935 and 1936", while Carter says that it was in January 1937 that Burgess introduced Blunt to his Soviet recruiter, Arnold Deutsch. Shortly after meeting Deutsch, writes Carter, Blunt became a Soviet "talent spotter" and was given the NKVD code name 'Tony'. Blunt may have identified Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and Michael Straight – all undergraduates at Trinity College (except Maclean at the neighbouring Trinity Hall), a few years younger than he – as potential spies for the Soviets.
Blunt said in his public confession that it was Burgess who converted him to the Soviet cause, after both had left Cambridge. Both were members of the Cambridge Apostles, and Burgess could have recruited Blunt or vice versa either at Cambridge University or later when both worked for British intelligence.
With the invasion of Poland by German and Soviet forces, Blunt joined the British Army in 1939. During the Phoney War he served in France in the intelligence corps. When the Wehrmacht drove British forces back to Dunkirk in May 1940, he was evacuated by the Royal Navy. During that same year he was recruited to MI5, the Security Service. Before the war MI5 employed mostly former Indian policemen, for it was in India that the British Empire faced security threats. MI5 may have known Blunt's views, for an officer later claimed that it had been virtually running the Communist Party of Great Britain and complained about the cost of pension payments to its retired infiltrators.
Blunt passed the results of Ultra intelligence from decrypted Enigma intercepts of Wehrmacht radio traffic from the Russian front. He also admitted to passing details of German spy rings operating in the Soviet Union. Ultra was primarily working on the Kriegsmarine naval codes, which eventually helped win the Battle of the Atlantic, but as the war progressed Wehrmacht army codes were also broken. Sensitive receivers could pick up transmissions, relating to German war plans, from Berlin. There was great risk that, if the Germans discovered their codes had been compromised, they would change the settings of the Enigma wheels, blinding the codebreakers.
Full details of the entire Operation Ultra were fully known by only four people, only one of whom routinely worked at Bletchley Park. Dissemination of Ultra information did not follow usual intelligence protocol but maintained its own communications channels. Military intelligence officers gave intercepts to Ultra liaisons, who in turn forwarded the intercepts to Bletchley Park. Information from decoded messages was then passed back to military leaders through the same channels. Thus, each link in the communications chain knew only one particular job and not the overall Ultra details. Nobody outside Bletchley Park knew the source.
John Cairncross, another of the Cambridge Five, was posted from MI6 to work at Bletchley Park. Blunt admitted to recruiting Cairncross and may well have been the cut-out between Cairncross and the Soviet contacts. For although the Soviet Union was now an ally, Russians were not trusted. Some information concerned German preparations and detailed plans for the Battle of Kursk, the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front. Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a wartime British agent, recalls meeting Kim Philby and Victor Rothschild, a friend of Blunt since Trinity College, Cambridge. He reported that at the Paris meeting in late 1955 Rothschild argued that much more Ultra material should have been given to Stalin. For once, Philby reportedly dropped his reserve, and agreed.
During the war, Blunt attained the rank of major. In the final days of World War II in Europe, Blunt made a successful secret trip to Schloss Friedrichshof in Germany to retrieve sensitive letters between the Duke of Windsor and Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis. King George VI asked Blunt, who worked part-time at the Royal Library, to conduct the Royal Librarian, Owen Morshead, to Friedrichshof in March 1945 to liberate letters to the Empress Victoria, a daughter of Queen Victoria, and mother to Kaiser Wilhelm. Papers rescued by Morshead and Blunt were deposited in the Royal Archives. After WWII, Blunt's espionage activity diminished, but he retained contact with Soviet agents and continued to pass them gossip from his former MI5 colleagues and documents from Burgess. This continued until the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951.
Suspicion and secret confession
Some people knew of Blunt's role long before his public exposure. According to MI5 papers released in 2002, Moura Budberg reported in 1950 that Blunt was a member of the Communist Party, but this was ignored. According to Blunt himself, he never joined because Burgess persuaded him that he would be more valuable to the anti-fascist crusade by working with Burgess. He was certainly on friendly terms with Sir Dick White, the head of MI5 and later MI6, in the 1960s, and they used to spend Christmas together with Victor Rothschild in Rothschild's Cambridge house.
His NKVD control had also become suspicious at the sheer amount of material he was passing over and suspected him of being a triple agent. Later, he was described by a KGB officer as an "ideological shit".
With the defection of Burgess and Maclean to Moscow in May 1951, Blunt came under suspicion. He and Burgess had been friends since Cambridge. Maclean was in imminent danger due to decryptions from Venona as the messages were decrypted. Burgess returned on the Queen Mary to Southampton after being suspended from the British Embassy in Washington for his conduct. He was to warn Maclean, who now worked in the Foreign Office but was under surveillance and isolated from secret material. Blunt collected Burgess at Southampton Docks and took him to stay at his flat in London, although he later denied that he had warned the defecting pair. Blunt was interrogated by MI5 in 1952, but gave away little, if anything. Arthur Martin and Jim Skardon had interviewed Blunt eleven times since 1951, but Blunt had admitted nothing.
Blunt was greatly distressed by Burgess's flight and, on 28 May 1951, confided in his friend Goronwy Rees, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who had briefly supplied the NKVD with political information in 1938–39. Rees suggested that Burgess had gone to the Soviet Union because of his violent anti-Americanism and belief that America would involve Britain in a Third World War, and that he was a Soviet agent. Blunt suggested that this was not sufficient reason to denounce Burgess to MI5. He pointed out that "Burgess was one of our oldest friends and to denounce him would not be the act of a friend." Blunt quoted E. M. Forster's belief that country was less important than friendship. He argued that "Burgess had told me he was a spy in 1936 and I had not told anyone."
In 1963, MI5 learned of Blunt's espionage from an American, Michael Straight, whom he had recruited. Blunt confessed to MI5 on 23 April 1964, and Queen Elizabeth II was informed shortly thereafter. He also named John Cairncross, Peter Ashby, Brian Symon and Leonard Henry (Leo) Long as spies. Long had also been a member of the Communist Party and an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. During the war he served in MI14 military intelligence in the War Office, with responsibility for assessing German offensive plans. He passed analyses but not original material relating to the Eastern Front to Blunt.
In return for Blunt's full confession, the British government agreed to keep his spying career an official secret for fifteen years, and granted him full immunity from prosecution. According to the memoir of MI5 officer Peter Wright, Wright had regular interviews with Blunt from 1964 onwards for six years. Prior to that, he had a briefing with Michael Adeane, the Queen's private secretary, who told Wright: "From time to time you may find Blunt referring to an assignment he undertook on behalf of the Palace – a visit to Germany at the end of the war. Please do not pursue this matter. Strictly speaking, it is not relevant to considerations of national security."
Blunt's life was little affected. In 1966, two years after his secret confession, Noel Annan, provost of King's College, Cambridge, held a dinner party for Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, Ann Fleming, widow of James Bond author Ian Fleming, and Victor Rothschild and his wife Tess. The Rothschilds brought their friend and lodger – Blunt. All had had wartime connections with British Intelligence; Jenkins at Bletchley Park.
In 1979, Blunt's role was represented in Andrew Boyle's book Climate of Treason, in which Blunt was given the pseudonym 'Maurice', after the homosexual protagonist of E. M. Forster's novel of that name. In September 1979, Blunt had tried to obtain a typescript before the publication of Boyle's book. "Technically there was no defamation, and Boyle's editor, Harold Harris, refused to cooperate." Blunt's request was reported in the magazine Private Eye and drew attention to him. In early November excerpts were published in The Observer, and on 8 November Private Eye revealed that 'Maurice' was Blunt. In interviews to publicize his book, Boyle refused to confirm that Blunt was 'Maurice' and asserted that was the government's responsibility.
Based on an interview with Blunt's solicitor, Michael Rubinstein, who had met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, Blunt's biographer Miranda Carter states that Thatcher, "personally affronted by Blunt's immunity, took the bait. ...she found the whole episode thoroughly reprehensible, and reeking of Establishment collusion." On Thursday 15 November 1979, Thatcher revealed Blunt's wartime role in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom and in more detail on 21 November.
In a statement to the newsmedia on 20 November, Blunt claimed the decision to grant him immunity from prosecution was taken by the then prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
For weeks after Thatcher's announcement, Blunt was hunted by the press. Once found, he was besieged by photographers. Blunt had recently given a lecture at the invitation of Francis Haskell, Oxford University's professor of art history. Haskell had a Russian mother and wife and had graduated from King's College, Cambridge. To the press this made him an obvious suspect. They repeatedly telephoned Haskell's home in the early hours of the morning, using the names of his friends and claiming to have an urgent message for "Anthony".
Although Blunt was outwardly calm, the sudden exposure shocked him. His former pupil, art critic Brian Sewell, said at the time, "He was so businesslike about it; he considered the implications for his knighthood and academic honours and what should be resigned and what retained. What he didn't want was a great debate at his clubs, the Athenaeum and the Travellers. He was incredibly calm about it all." Sewell was involved in protecting Blunt from the extensive media attention after his exposure, and his friend was spirited away to a flat within a house in Chiswick.
Queen Elizabeth II stripped Blunt of his knighthood, and in short order he was removed as an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College. Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy after a failed effort to expel him; three fellows resigned in protest against the failure to remove him. He broke down in tears in his BBC Television confession at the age of 72.
Blunt died of a heart attack at his London home in 1983, aged 75.
Blunt withdrew from society and seldom went out after his exposure. His friend Tess Rothschild suggested that he occupy his time writing his memoirs. Brian Sewell, his former pupil, said they remained unfinished because he had to consult the newspaper library in Colindale, North London, to check facts but was unhappy at being recognised.
"I do know he was really worried about upsetting his family," said Sewell. "I think he was being absolutely straight with me when he said that if he could not verify the facts there was no point in going on." Blunt stopped writing in 1983, leaving his memoirs to his partner, John Gaskin, who kept them for a year and then gave them to Blunt's executor, John Golding, a fellow art historian.
Golding passed them on to the British Library, insisting that they not be released for 25 years. It was finally made available to readers on 23 July 2009. Golding explains: "I did so because, although most of the figures mentioned were dead, their families might not like it. It covers his Cambridge days and there are a number of names. They weren't all spies, but communism was common amongst intellectuals in the Thirties."
In the typed manuscript, Blunt conceded that spying for the Soviet Union was the biggest mistake of his life.
What I did not realise is that I was so naïve politically that I was not justified in committing myself to any political action of this kind. The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life.
The memoir revealed little that was not already known about Blunt. When asked whether there would be any new or unexpected names, John Golding replied: "I'm not sure. It's 25 years since I read it, and my memory is not that good." Although ordered by the KGB to defect with Maclean and Burgess to protect Philby, in 1951 Blunt realised "quite clearly that I would take any risk in [Britain], rather than go to Russia." After he was publicly exposed, he claims to have considered suicide but instead turned to "whisky and concentrated work".
Career as an art historian
Throughout the time of his activities in espionage, Blunt's public career was as an art historian, a field in which he gained eminence. In 1940, most of his fellowship dissertation was published under the title of Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600, which remains in print. In 1945, he was given the distinguished position of Surveyor of the King's Pictures, and later the Queen's Pictures (after the death of King George VI in 1952), in charge of the Royal Collection, one of the largest and richest collections of art in the world. He held the position for 27 years, was knighted as a KCVO in 1956 for his work in the role, and his contribution was vital in the expansion of the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which opened in 1962, and organizing the cataloguing of the collection.
In 1947, Blunt became both Professor of the History of Art at the University of London, and the director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where he had been lecturing since the spring of 1933, and where his tenure in office as director lasted until 1974. This position included the use of a live-in apartment on the premises, then at Home House in Portman Square. During his 27 years at the Courtauld Institute, Blunt was respected as a dedicated teacher, a kind superior to his staff. His legacy at the Courtauld was to have left it with a larger staff, increased funding, and more space, and his role was central in the acquisition of outstanding collections for the Courtauld's Galleries. He is often credited for making the Courtauld what it is today, as well as for pioneering art history in Britain, and for training the next generation of British art historians.
In 1953, Blunt published his book Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700 in the Penguin History of Art (later taken over by Yale UP), and he was in particular an expert on the works of Nicolas Poussin, writing numerous books and articles about the painter, and serving as curator for a landmark exhibition of Poussin at the Louvre in 1960, which was an enormous success. He also wrote on topics as diverse as William Blake, Pablo Picasso, the Galleries of England, Scotland, and Wales. He also catalogued the French drawings (1945), G. B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella drawings (1954) Roman drawings (with H. L. Cooke, 1960) and Venetian (with Edward Croft-Murray, 1957) drawings in the Royal Collection, as well as a supplement of Addenda and Corrigenda to the Italian catalogues (in E. Schilling's German Drawings).
Blunt attended a summer school in Sicily in 1965, leading to a deep interest in Sicilian Baroque architecture, and in 1968 he wrote the only authoritative and in-depth book on Sicilian Baroque. From 1962 he was engaged in a dispute with Sir Denis Mahon regarding the authenticity of a Poussin work which rumbled on for several years. Mahon was shown to be correct. Blunt was also unaware that a painting in his own possession was also by Poussin.
Notable students who have been influenced by Blunt include Aaron Scharf, photography historian and author of 'Art and Photography' (whom Blunt assisted, along with Scharf's wife, in escaping McCarthy condemnation for their support of communism), Brian Sewell (an art critic for the Evening Standard), Ron Bloore, Sir Oliver Millar (his successor at the Royal Collection and an expert on Van Dyck), Nicholas Serota, Neil Macgregor, the former editor of the Burlington magazine, former director of the National Gallery and former director of the British Museum who paid tribute to Blunt as "a great and generous teacher", John White (art historian), Sir Alan Bowness (who ran the Tate Gallery), John Golding (who wrote the first major book on Cubism), Reyner Banham (an influential architectural historian), John Shearman (the "world expert" on Mannerism and the former Chair of the Art History Department at Harvard University), Melvin Day (former Director of National Art Gallery of New Zealand and Government Art Historian for New Zealand ), Christopher Newall (an expert on the Pre-Raphaelites), Michael Jaffé (an expert on Rubens), Michael Mahoney (former Curator of European Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and former Chair of the Art History Department at Trinity College, Hartford), Lee Johnson (an expert on Eugène Delacroix), and Anita Brookner (an art historian and novelist).
Among his many accomplishments, Blunt also received a series of honorary fellowships, became the National Trust's picture adviser, curated exhibitions at the Royal Academy, edited and wrote numerous books and articles, and sat on many influential committee in the arts.
After Margaret Thatcher had exposed Blunt's espionage, he continued his art history work by writing and publishing a Guide to Baroque Rome (1982). He intended to write a monograph about the architecture of Pietro da Cortona but he died before realising the project. His manuscripts were sent to the intended co-author of this work, German art historian Jörg Martin Merz by the executors of his will. Merz published a book, Pietro da Cortona and Roman Baroque Architecture in 2008 incorporating a draft by the late Anthony Blunt.
Many of his publications are still seen today by scholars as integral to the study of art history. His writing is lucid, and places art and architecture in their context in history. In Art and Architecture in France, for example, he begins each section with a brief depiction of the social, political and/or religious contexts in which works of art and art movements are emerging. In Blunt's Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600, he explains the motivational circumstances involved in the transitions between the High Renaissance and Mannerism.
Cambridge Spies is a four-part BBC television drama, broadcast on BBC2 in May 2003, concerning the lives of the best-known quartet of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies, from 1934 to the 1951 defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union.The series was written by Peter Moffatt and directed by Tim Fywell. The complete series was released on DVD on 2 June 2003. Viewing figures for the series averaged at 2 million per episode.
Two great productions of the BBC around the Cambridge Spies ... First , "A question of attribution"
Two great productions of the BBC around the Cambridge Spies ... Second ..."An Englishman abroad"
This is one of my favorite films ... a great story about loneliness,"gentilless", true humanity in distress, keeping on the gentleman's code as weapon against dispair ... and a great sense of humor ... besides a remarkable visit in London to Saville Row, John Lobb, ... etc...etc
Yours ... Jeeves