Blunt Contempt

Many a British art worthy maintains we all could have been Anthony Blunt. Rubbish: he deserved nothing less than exile in Russia

The recent death of the art historian John Golding brings back a moment of farce centring on the exposure in 1979 of Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and spy for Stalin. As a member of the Cambridge Five, Blunt had worked for Moscow since the Thirties.

The farce began when the press besieged the house near Ravenscourt Park in West London where Blunt was hiding out with Golding and his partner, the historian James Joll. What they didn’t know was that a diplomat specialising in Russia who had studied in Moscow and was currently principal private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, lived directly opposite, and was friendly with John and James. Or that my wife Sarah, an art historian and restorer, had been taught by Blunt at the Courtauld Institute.

When a reporter rang our bell one morning, we thought: that’s it. But it was to ask to use our balcony to look into Golding’s house. Ethically, we were on the spot. Us, spy on James and John? On the other hand we had a healthy contempt for Blunt: Sarah because of his icy disdain towards female students, both of us because of his betrayal.

And not only of Britain. While our fastidious aesthete worked for them, the OGPU, the NKVD and the KGB murdered and imprisoned Russian artists and writers. After the war the cultural boss Andrei Zhdanov campaigned against formalism, at a time when Blunt was saying that Picasso’s highly formalist Guernica was the last great painting in the European tradition. Did our Moscow man use his connections to intervene fearlessly in the defence of Mstislav Rostropovich or Anna Akhmatova? I wouldn’t bet on it.

The best account of the mentality of the upper-caste British traitor is by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in his essay “Collector’s Item”: “The Communist Party is just another Apostles, a sort of frat, and it preaches brotherhood. And in a while . . . you are asked to do a job, nothing big, but faintly foul.” 

As for Blunt’s scholarship, the French art historian Marc Fumaroli undermined much of his work on Poussin, but do not expect the British to admit it.

For the record we turned the journalist down but let him use the lavatory. Naturally the quasi-royal personage went unpunished. Personally I would like to have seen him exiled to Russia, to curate a collection of the socialist realism paintings he had once championed. But then, as many a British art worthy has since insisted, given his personal circumstances and the history of the time, we could all have been Blunts. Or, by the same logic, Hitlers or Genghis Khans.

As obvious members of the Ravenscourt ring our own punishment would have been death by tabloid innuendo. This I avoided by ensuring that the red boxes dispatched to me in the late evenings were discreetly delivered, and by smuggling them out in the mornings under a coat. Strangely, they never got us.

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