When Anthony Blunt died in 1983, he was a man about whom almost anything could be - and was - said. As Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures and Director of the Courtauld Institute, Blunt's position was assured until his exposure in 1979 left his reputation in tatters. Miranda Carter's brilliantly insightful biography gives us a vivid portrait of a human paradox. Blunt's totally discrete lives, with their permanent contradictions, serve to remind us that there is no one key to any human being's identity: we are all a series of conflicting selves.
In this book, Carter has written a forensic dissection of his life, from the privileged education at Marlborough and Cambridge, his early career in the art world, courtier to the royal family and war work in the intelligence services and post war activities where he built his reputation as an academic in the art world. In his early days he held very Marxist views and these were reflected in his articles and writing. A contemporary of Burgess, Maclean and Philby he was one of those recruited whilst at Cambridge by the Soviets. He passed a number of secrets to them during and after the war, nothing to the level of Philby, but crucial information nonetheless. Rather than this being just a principled ideology, he accepted a number of payments from them. After leaving MI5 he was passed papers from Burgess to courier to them.
Burgess and Maclean defected and slowly the net closed in. Philby was sacked from MI6 and the investigations were started on those that knew or were associated with these spies. Blunt was one of those suspected, but there was no evidence initially, but slowly through the smoke and mirrors came the evidence that they needed. The spies extracted a confession from Blunt, and quietly brushed the scandal under the carpet, with the intention of releasing the story after he had died. In 1979 though his treachery was revealed in Parliament by Thatcher. All his honours and knighthoods were stripped and he was hounded by the press.
This was a fascinating book to read in lots of ways. The amount of detail in here is immense too, even covering his visits to post war Germany to recover letters and artworks for the King. Carter has covered with almost clinical precision probably everything that you could ever want to know about Blunt; the others from the Cambridge ring play second fiddle in the book to Blunt as well, making the focus mostly on him. Blunt could have so easily not been a spy, if the right opportunity had presented itself at the time, but his Marxist sympathies and Cambridge contacts meant that he became one. It was not done out of principle either, he was paid for some of the material that he supplied showing that he was committed to these actions. The spy agencies at the time never thought that people from the establishment would ever betray their country. How wrong they were.
And having been betrayed, the establishment then sought to protect their own.