Who Was Anthony Blunt? The Soviet Spy at the Heart of the British Establishment

Alice Roberts

5 mins

25 Nov 2019

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher revealed that a Soviet spy had been working from the heart of the British Establishment, managing the Queen’s paintings.

So why did Anthony Blunt, an Oxbridge-educated vicar’s son from Hampshire, seek to undermine the Royal family from within?

A privileged upbringing

Anthony Blunt was born the youngest son of a vicar, the Reverend Arthur Stanley Vaughan Blunt, in Bournemouth, Hampshire. He was a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

Educated at Marlborough College, Blunt was a contemporary of John Betjeman and British historian, John Edward Bowle. Bowle remembered Blunt from his school days, describing him as:

‘an intellectual prig, too preoccupied with the realm of ideas … [with] too much ink in his veins and belonged to a world of rather prissy, cold-blooded, academic puritanism’

Blunt won a scholarship in mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that Blunt became exposed to Communist sympathies, which wasn’t uncommon in this hub of liberal, college-educated youth, who grew ever more infuriated with the appeasement toward Hitler.

The Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge. Image source: Rafa Esteve / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge. Image source: Rafa Esteve / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although some sources suggested Blunt’s homosexuality was an associated factor of his communist leanings, this was something he vehemently denied. In a press conference in the 1970s, Blunt recalled the atmosphere in Cambridge:

‘In the mid 1930s, it seemed to me and many of my contemporaries that the Communist party in Russia constituted the only firm bulwark against Fascism, since the Western democracies were taking an uncertain and compromising attitude towards Germany … We all felt it was our duty to do what we could against Facism’

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Guy Burgess and an ideological ‘duty’

Guy Burgess,  a close friend, was probably the reason Blunt actively engaged in furthering the cause of Marxism. The historian Andrew Lownie, writes:

‘I think, absolutely, that Blunt would never have been recruited if he hadn’t been so friendly with Burgess. It was Burgess who recruited him … [without Burgess] Blunt would’ve just remained a sort of Marxist art professor at Cambridge.’

Guy Burgress was imperative to Blunt's involvement with Marxism.

Guy Burgess was imperative to Blunt’s active involvement with Marxism.

Burgess was a larger-than-life character, known for his indulgence in drink and merriment. He would go on to work at the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5, and MI6, and provided the Soviets with 4,604 documents – twice that of Blunt.

The ‘Cambridge Five’ included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

Espionage and art

According to Michelle Carter, who has written a biography named ‘Anthony Blunt: His Lives’, Blunt provided Soviet intelligence officers with 1,771 documents between 1941 and 1945. The sheer amount of material passed over by Blunt made the Russians suspicious he was acting as a triple agent.

Blunt’s 1967 monograph on the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (whose work is pictured, The Death of Germanicus) is still widely regarded as a watershed book in art history.

During the Second World War, Blunt was prolific in publishing critical essays and papers on art. He began working for the Royal Collection, writing a catalogue of the French old master drawings at Windsor Castle.

He soon served as the Surveyor of the King’s (then the Queen’s) Pictures from 1945 to 1972. During his time looking after the Royal Collection, he became a close friend of the Royal Family, who trusted him and later awarded him a knighthood.

Somerset House on The Strand is where the Courtauld Institute is based. Image source: Stephen Richards / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Somerset House on The Strand houses the Courtauld Institute. Image source: Stephen Richards / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Blunt worked his way up at the Courtauld Institute, eventually becoming director from 1947-1974. During his time in charge, the Institute went from a struggling academy to a highly-respected centre of the art world.

Blunt was an esteemed and celebrated Art Historian, and his books are still read widely today.

Suspicions denied

In 1951, the secret service became suspicious of Donald Maclean,  one of the ‘Cambridge Five’. It was only a matter of time before the authorities closed in on Maclean, and Blunt concocted a plan to enable his escape.

Accompanied by Guy Burgess, Maclaen took a a boat to France (which didn’t require a passport) and the pair made their way to Russia.

SS Falaise, the ship on which Burgess and Maclean fled in May 1951.

SS Falaise, the ship on which Burgess and Maclean fled in May 1951.

From this point on, intelligence services challenged Blunt’s involvement, which he repeatedly and unwaveringly denied.

In 1963, MI5 acquired concrete evidence of Blunt’s deceptions from an American, Michael Straight, whom Blunt himself had recruited.

Blunt confessed to MI5 on 23 April 1964, and named John Cairncross, Peter Ashby, Brian Symon and Leonard Long as spies.

A page from the Philby, Bugress & MacLean declassified FBI file.

A page from the Philby, Bugress & MacLean declassified FBI file.

The intelligence services believed Blunt’s crimes should be kept under wraps, as it had reflected so badly on the competency of MI5 and MI6, who had allowed a Soviet spy to operate unnoticed at the heart of the British establishment.

The recent Profumo Affair had also been an embarrassing expose into the flawed operations of the intelligence services.

Blunt was offered immunity in exchange for a confession. He continued to work for the Royal Family, with only a very select few aware of the man’s treason.

The Queen, maintaining a facade of civility and order, came to the opening of the Courtauld Institute’s new galleries in 1968, and publicly congratulated him on his retirement in 1972.

The secret is out

Blunt’s treachery remained totally concealed for over 15 years. It was only in 1979, when Andrew Boyle wrote ‘Climate of Treason’, which represented Blunt under the name of Maurice, that public interest ebulliated.

Blunt tried to prevent the book’s publication, an event which Private Eye was quick to report and bring to public attention.

In November that year, Margaret Thatcher revealed all in a speech to the House of Commons:

‘In April 1964 Sir Anthony Blunt admitted to the security authorities that he had been recruited by and had acted as a talent-spotter for Russian intelligence before the war, when he was a don at Cambridge, and had passed information regularly to the Russians while he was a member of the Security Service between 1940 and 1945.

He made this admission after being given an undertaking that he would not be prosecuted if he confessed.’

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A hated figure

Blunt was hounded by the press, and gave a press conference in response to such animosity. He recounted his communist loyalties:

‘This was a gradual process and I find it very difficult to analyse. It is, after all, more than 30 years ago. But it was the information that came out immediately after the war.

During the war one was simply thinking of them as Allies et cetera, but then with the information about the camps… it was episodes of that kind.’

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In a 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.’

After leaving the conference in tears, Blunt remained in London until he died from a heart attack 4 years later.