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Anthony Blunt

Part 2

It may be that the British Library memoirs reveal something warmer than this public image, more of the private man whose humour and enthusiasm were frequently remarked upon by those who had known him as a colleague and a tutor.

There is no shortage of testimonies from former students for whom he remained a deeply inspiring figure. Amongst some young art-historians he became something of an idol; it could even be said that he was worshipped and given a celebrity status that few art-historians enjoy. The art-historian and former National Gallery Director Michael Levey observed: 'To an outsider, at least, he seemed surrounded by devoted, chiefly female acolytes, whose references to 'Anthony' breathed deep respect'.

As a specialist on seventeenth and eighteenth century French and Italian art, as well as writing on artists as diverse as Picasso and William Blake, Blunt published a continuous stream of articles and books from the late 1930s until his death in 1983. The marxist political beliefs that had coloured his work as art critic for The Spectator in the 1930s are nowhere evident in this academic corpus, by which his reputation was quickly established. Apart from this work as a scholar, however, his major contribution to English art history was his part in the professionalisation of art history in the 1950s and 60s, and the transformation of the London University Courtauld Institute from society salon into a leading academic institution.

In the early 1950s art history was still a little-studied and rarified subject in England, in comparison to strong academic traditions in Germany, Austria, Paris and Rome. Although Blunt was not alone in this movement - emigrés from Central Europe who gathered around the Warburg Institute, moved from Hamburg to London in 1933, gave vital momentum to this process - it was Blunt who, as director of the Courtauld and prominent public figure, was able to transform art history into a rigorous discipline, while preserving much of the enthusiasm and charm that had distinguished it in the English tradition. Blunt himself was to characterise this as a 'synthesis between continental professionalism and the English amateur tradition'.

The Blunt myth that has arisen since his death in 1983 - John Banville's extraordinary roman-a-cléf The Untouchable, or Alan Bennett's 1988 screenplay A Question of Attribution, for example - has certainly preserved this aura of glamour.

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