Always on the lookout for a hefty summer read, I have just finished reading Anthony Blunt: His Lives, by Miranda Carter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a 2001 book which picked up, in hardcover, for $2, at a library sale. Art may be more and more expensive, with bad Chinese contemporary paintings inexplicably commanding millions, but books, whose very existence is threatened by technology, are cheaper than ever, especially the best kind, used books.
Blunt, of course, was the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, chief of the Courtauld Institute, the scholar who reintroduced Poussin to the world and, notoriously, the so-called "fourth man" in the Soviet spy ring (Philby, Burgess and MacLean were the others) which handed over thousands of documents to the Russians from British intelligence during from the Depression through World War II and beyond. Blunt’s role was not fully exposed until his infamous, and rather diffident, BBC press conference in 1979, when he was 72.
What is most fascinating about this well-written book, Carter’s first, is its portrayal of a world where art mattered. We see King George V attacking a Cézanne with a cane, for example, and his son, King George VI, telling Blunt that he can never decide whether "the nameplate at the bottom of the picture identifies the artist or the sitter." The exchanges in Burlington Magazine, between Blunt, Kenneth Clark and John Pope-Hennessy, viciously dissecting the merits of Picasso’s Guernica as either a capitulation to sentimentality or an icon of Communism, with the principals retiring to the Reform Club over drinks, lying to each other that "it’s not personal, old boy."
Risible favoritism rears its head when Blunt champions a horrible British realist named William Coldstream, and esthetic prejudice flourishes when Blunt attempts to present Poussin as not the minor allegorical painter he was then perceived as, but as a well-read philosopher of the first order. Mirroring the American experience of elite curators such as James Johnson Sweeney and Monroe Wheeler, Blunt lived a spartan life, in which hard work and dedication to art for no, or little, money was the operative mode.
He was a first-rate lecturer, whose storytelling skills (not to mention the gimlet-eyed detachment which transformed him into a traitor) came out of a group at Cambridge in the 1930s called the Apostles, a watered-down version of Bloomsbury. Miranda Carter speculates that Blunt may have turned double on the Soviets in 1948, passing them disinformation after confessing to MI-5, a circumstance which preserved his relationship with the young Queen Elizabeth, after his bold curation of a public exhibition of the Royal Pictures, over fierce objections from Buckingham Palace retainers that the public was not worthy of seeing the royal holdings.
One leaves this excellent book with the vivid impression of an age when art itself was a vital part of the intrigue and discourse of social and political life, however treacherous and snobbish. Today, apparently, all there is of art in the wider circle of existence is a television reality show.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).