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Anthony Blunt

Part 1

A manuscript currently kept under lock and key in the British Library, closed to the public until around 2009, may or may not shed light on one of the most sphinx-like figures of the British arts establishment. The document, an unfinished memoir by the art-historian Anthony Blunt, was deposited in the British library in 1987, four years after the author's death. It was written as an apologia, just after Blunt's public exposure as a Soviet spy by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, at a time when he was being humiliated in the press and stripped of all the honours and professional accolades that his career as an art-historian had earned him.

Whatever the memoirs claim, it is certain that they will consist of a balanced repudiation of the attacks made on their author after his de-masking. Following Thatcher's revelations in the House of Commons, there was public outcry and vociferous indignation that a man could exist for so long at the centre of the establishment - working for MI5 during the war, then as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures and Director of the Courtauld Institute from 1945 and 1947 respectively, yet also be feeding the Russians with top-secret information. As one of many journalists getting the boot in, the writer George Steiner attacked both Blunt and the academic ivory tower that he inhabited. His denunciation in the New Yorker magazine concluded, bluntly: 'Damn the man'.

Public opinion largely concurred, and much was said about traitors and treason. It was not generally recognised that in 1964 Blunt had been given immunity from prosecution by the government in return for a confession, a deal that the government had clearly broken in 1979. More important for public outrage was Blunt's image as a glacial arch-snob, an aloof academic, and a homosexual. There was indeed a coolness about him, an elegance that was easily read as arrogance. Steiner suggests that the tradition of 'austere nobility' that can be found in French art and letters, from Racine to Mallarmé, an intellectual poise uncomfortable for most Englishmen, provided Blunt with perfect resonance for his own temperament. His subsequent work on the seventeenth-century french painter, Nicolas Poussin, the artist with whom Blunt is most closely identified, defines the artist entirely in terms of this 'passionate dispassion'.

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