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Anthony Frederick Blunt (26 September 1907 – 26 March 1983), known 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 the History of Art 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, Dorset, 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 Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late 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 vicar father was assigned to Paris with the British embassy chapel, and so moved his family to the French capital for several years during Blunt'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. He thought Blunt had too much ink in his veins and belonged to a world of rather prissy, cold-blooded, academic puritanism.
He 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 activity at that 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 in the university. Many were homosexual and Marxist at that time. Amongst other members, also later accused of being part of the Cambridge spy ring, were the American Michael Whitney Straight and Victor Rothschild who later worked for MI5. Rothschild gave Blunt £100 to purchase 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 the Fitzwilliam Museum.
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. Many sources suggest that Blunt remained at Cambridge and served as a talent-spotter. He may have identified Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and Michael Straight – all undergraduates at Trinity College 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.
Blunt died of a heart attack at his London home in 1983, aged 75.
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