Book: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

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Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Author: Miranda Carter
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Once an untouchable member of England’s establishment—a world-famous art historian and a man knighted by the Queen of England—in a single stroke Anthony Blunt became an object of universal hatred when, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher exposed him as a Soviet spy.

In Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Miranda Carter shows how one man lived out opposing trends of his century—first as a rebel against his class, then as its epitome—and yet embodied a deeper paradox. In the 1920s, Blunt was a member of the Bloomsbury circle; in the 1930s he was a left-wing intellectual; in the 50s and 60s he became a camouflaged member of the Establishment. Until his treachery was made public, Blunt was a world-famous art historian, recognized for his ground-breaking work on Poussin, Italian art, and old master drawings; at the Courtauld Institute he trained a whole generation of academics and curators. And yet even as he ascended from rebellion into outward conformity, he was a homosexual when homosexuality was a crime, and a traitor when the penalty was death.

How could one man contain so many contradictions? The layers of secrecy upon which Blunt’s life depended are here stripped away for the first time, using testimony from those who knew Blunt well but have until now kept silent and documents from sealed Russian archives, including a secret autobiography Blunt wrote for his controllers. Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt is the first full biography of the mythical Cold War warrior, and is at once an astonishing history of one the century’s greatest deceits and a deeply nuanced account of fifty years in the British power elite, as experienced by one deep inside who wished to bring it down.


The subtitle of Miranda Carter’s remarkably assured debut, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, speaks volumes for the artful spy she brings in from the cold. The so-called “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge spy ring after Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, Blunt’s life embraced a fascinating opposition. On the one hand, he was an exceptional teacher, who inspired and influenced a generation of art historians through his lectures and tuition while director of the Courtauld Institute; on the other, he was a spy who betrayed secrets to the Soviet NKVD (later KGB). This dichotomy of enlightenment and concealment lies at the centre of Carter’s spirited inquiry. A product as well as a victim of his times, Blunt’s offence was not just espionage, but also his background. Educated at Marlborough, where fellow pupils included John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice, he grew into a louche left-wing homosexual of a familiar Cambridge vintage, a dissident aesthete for whom truth and kinship outweighed loyalty to orthodoxy, and thus the state. When Marxism replaced the Bloomsbury set as the Cambridge de rigeur in the 1930s, Blunt was ideologically seduced by the wildly charismatic Guy Burgess, and became a Soviet talent-spotter, and later double agent. After his sensational public exposure in 1979, he dismissed his activity as akin to “cowboys and Indians”, but if his motives remain foggy, Carter makes clear the comic shambles that was British intelligence at the time, more Carry On than John Le Carré, everyone with an agenda, and usually not their own.

Miranda Carter’s precocious disentangling of the mesh of half-truths that characterise this period of British intelligence, and its intelligentsia, reaps bountiful dividends. Burgess once sniped that Blunt was holding out for canonisation rather than a knighthood, a remark that reflected his highly principled friend’s preference for history over politics, despite his clandestine activities. It is history, though, which has the longer memory, and dictates that he is to be remembered more as a spy than an art historian. Blunt’s own account of his duplicitous career is embargoed until 2013, and speculation is markedly polarised as to how much it will reveal. Until then, Carter offers a scrupulously researched, finely balanced assessment of his Russian-doll persona and troubled reputation, while boldly establishing her own as a significant new writing talent.—David Vincent

Barnes and Noble

Anthony Blunt was the most notorious British spy of the 20th century. Many books have been written about his exploits as a Soviet agent, but there hasn’t been a full-scale Blunt biography—until now. Miranda Carter has spent eight years researching this fascinating look at how the left-wing intellectual, art expert, and deeply closeted homosexual became one of Britain’s most dangerous men.

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