The Crown Got It Right: Anthony Blunt, Queen Elizabeth's Art Curator, Was a Soviet Spy
The Crown introduces a curious new figure in season three: a buttoned-up curator, well-practiced in the art of espionage.
Anthony Blunt appears first as a courteous and knowledgeable professional, well-liked even by Queen Elizabeth, who readily admits her limited understanding of his chosen field.
And then, rather quickly, we're hit with the real story. The Queen, with the audience, learns of Blunt's past as a Soviet spy—and she, like us, is bewildered.
Like many of The Crown's storylines, this improbable ordeal is based in fact. Anthony Blunt was at once a Soviet spy and, for decades, the royal family's chief art curator. His motivations remain something of an enigma—but here, at least, are the facts.
IT WAS DURING HIS YEARS IN ACADEMIA THAT BLUNT JOINED THE SOVIET CAUSE.
Blunt attended Trinity College at Cambridge, and stayed on to continue his studies after graduation.
At the time, it wasn't uncommon for liberal, college-educated youth to be sympathetic to the Communist party. They were frustrated with the U.K.'s policy of appeasement toward Hitler, and thought that the Communists might be the only ones able to defeat the fascists. That, combined with their concern for workers' welfare, made Marxism seem appealing. (Also, many of the horrors about the U.S.S.R. had yet to come to light.)
In her biography, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Michelle Carter quotes Blunt's description of his fellow academics in January 1934, upon returning from abroad: "[I] found that the intellectuals whom I had known before I went away were all coming to the influence of Communism." Soon, he too was persuaded—first incorporating Marxist theories into his art historical essays, before eventually deciding to support the Soviet cause.
Some also believe that Blunt's homosexuality may have prepositioned him to rebel, as he was not accepted into the British social order of the time. (This being despite the U.S.S.R.'s own regressive ideas about sexuality.)
A CLOSE FRIEND PULLED BLUNT INTO A CIRCLE OF SPIES, LATER DUBBED THE "CAMBRIDGE FIVE."
Regardless of the political climate at Cambridge or his sexuality, Blunt likely never would have engaged in espionage were it not for his close friend, Guy Burgess—after all, while many on the Cambridge campus had Marxist sympathies, a scant few would end up spying for the other side.
Burgess was a famously larger-than-life character, often painted as a bumbling, amiable drunkard with a large sexual appetite. Andrew Lownie, author of Stalin's Englishmen, counters this claim. After all, he did variously work at the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5, and MI6, and provided the Soviets with 4,604 documents—more than double Blunt's total. "He was a far more effective spy than people realized with far greater access, particularly when he was private secretary to the number two in the foreign office," Lownie tells Town & Country.
He also gets credit for bringing Blunt over to the Soviet side. "I think, absolutely, that Blunt would never have been recruited if he hadn't been so friendly with Burgess," Lownie says. "It was Burgess who recruited him," Lownie notes, adding that without Burgess, "Blunt would've just remained a sort of Marxist art professor at Cambridge."
In addition to Burgess and Blunt, the "Five" included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross.
DURING WWII, BLUNT WORKED FOR MI5, MAKING HIM A VALUABLE SOVIET ASSET.
According to archives cited by Carter, Blunt provided Soviet intelligence officers with 1,771 documents between 1941 and 1945.
In addition to the "deciphered diplomatic telegrams, the diplomatic telephone conversations, and the product of various agents in the embassies" that he got in "the ordinary course" of his job, Blunt managed to put himself in a position to do "a good deal of liaison with other departments," Blunt wrote, per Carter. He would pass all of this information along to the Soviets.
MEANWHILE, HE WAS EARNING PROFESSIONAL ACCOLADES, AND ENDEARING HIMSELF TO THE ROYAL FAMILY.
Even during the war, Blunt was continuing to publish critical essays and academic papers, and further ingratiating himself with members of the art historical establishment. He began working for the Royal Collection during these years, writing a catalog of the French old master drawings at Windsor Castle. When the top job at the Collection was vacated, Royal Librarian Owen Morshead, who'd forged a friendship with Blunt, recommended him for the position.
Blunt served as the Surveyor of the King's (then the Queen's) Pictures from 1945 to 1972. In that role, he maintained the paintings in the Royal Collection. During his time there, he encouraged the royal family to open up somewhat, and at times exhibit their private treasures publicly, among other projects. He endeared himself to the royal family, and would eventually be given a knighthood.
His real passion, however, lay with the Courtauld Institute, a center for art historical studies. He worked his way up at the Institute, eventually guiding it as its director from 1947 to 1974. Blunt would guide the Courtauld in the transition from fledgling academy to a well-respected institution.
FAMOUSLY, BLUNT HELPED TWO OF HIS COMRADES ESCAPE THE U.K.
Donald Maclean was under suspicion in 1951, and as they narrowed in on him, it became clear that he needed to escape. In order to reassure him, Guy Burgess agreed to travel part of the way with him. The pair took a boat to France which didn't require a passport (a plan concocted by Blunt), and from there made their way to Russia. Burgess ended up going all the way with him, though; it's not clear whether Blunt knew he wasn't coming back.
In the following days, Blunt tried to keep his friends quiet about the disappearance.
WHEN THE AUTHORITIES FINALLY GOT AROUND TO CONFRONTING BLUNT, HE'D BEEN INACTIVE AS A SPY FOR YEARS.
Over the decades, Blunt became disillusioned with communism and the U.S.S.R. At his sole press conference in 1979, he would eventually say, "This was a gradual process, and I find it very difficult to analyze. 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."
THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY DECIDED IT WAS BETTER TO COVER UP BLUNT'S ESPIONAGE—UNTIL MARGARET THATCHER BLEW HIS COVER IN 1979.
Especially on the heels of the Profumo Affair, which had reflected poorly on MI5 and MI6's competency in counterintelligence, higher-ups believed that keeping Blunt's crimes under wraps would be best. Blunt was offered immunity in exchange for a confession and cooperation in ongoing investigations.
Queen Elizabeth was informed at the time—and this big reveal is what's depicted on The Crown. As on the show, the royals' hands were tied, even if they wanted to discipline Blunt; the Queen's private secretary asked what should be done, and was informed that no action should be taken, for fear of exposing Blunt as a spy. (The whole immunity deal was, of course, arranged to keep this secret.) He did continue to spend time occasionally with the Queen Mother, who presumably didn't know about his double life.
Carter writes that between his confession in 1964 and his eventual exposure in 1979, Blunt did his best to avoid the Queen while carrying out his work for the royal family. They did, however, continue to see each other at events; she came to the opening of the Courtauld Institute's new galleries in 1968, and would congratulate him on his retirement in 1972. (He would still work as an advisor for the Queen's pictures for years—an honorary post offered by the Lord Chamberlain, who didn't know about Blunt's treason.)
Later, as journalists neared the truth about Blunt, Margaret Thatcher outed him in a speech to the House of Commons. Blunt would hold a single press conference, and then do his best to fade into the background.
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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors