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Spies on the outside. Double life as a British agent and a Russian spy

By Merle Rubin / August 7, 1987

Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 616 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. ELEGANT, aloof, snobbish, brilliant, cold, supercilious, dictatorial, kind, courteous, civilized, and even just plain nice are among the terms in which those who knew him have described Anthony Blunt. Born in 1907, the youngest son of a vicar in the seaside resort of Bournemouth, Blunt spent some nine years (1912-21) of his early childhood in Paris, where his father served as chaplain to the British Embassy church and where Anthony conceived his lifelong interest in art.

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Following an impressive scholastic career at Marlborough and Cambridge, Mr. Blunt went on to win great distinction as an art historian. He was director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute from 1947 to 1974, a respected teacher and author of many books, articles, and catalogs. Appointed surveyor of the king's pictures in 1945, following a wartime stint in British intelligence, he continued to serve as surveyor to Queen Elizabeth II (who knighted him in 1956) until his retirement in 1972.

In 1979, responding to a question in Parliament from a Labour member, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly revealed that Blunt was the so-called ``fourth man'' in the notorious Cambridge spy ring (the first three being Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby). The Secret Service branches MI5 and MI6 - and successive British governments, which were duly informed - had known about Blunt's espionage as early as 1964, when, in return for immunity, he admitted his role as a Soviet spy under questioning by MI5. But, in the interest of national security, as it was claimed, this was not made public.

``Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt'' is not, in the usual sense, a biography of the man, the art historian, or even of the spy. To read its pages is to enter a web of revelations and concealments, a labyrinth of secret passageways and blind alleys, and a welter of opinions and testimony, some wild, some sober, some sincere, some self-serving. Far from encountering a ``Conspiracy of Silence,'' Messrs. Penrose and Freeman (both senior writers at the Sunday Times (London) found countless people willing to talk to them: former officials of British intelligence, high-ranking civil servants, Blunt's family, friends, lovers, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances.

What emerges is less a portrait of a man than a survey of a milieu - several milieus, from the sedate world of the Courtauld gallery to the raffish world of Blunt's homosexual contacts; from the exclusive world of Cambridge and the Apostles - the prestigious secret society at Cambridge - to the complex, looking-glass world of espionage and counterespionage.

Blunt became a Communist in the 1930s as a young Cambridge don. Many bright young people, dismayed by the economic depression and by the indifference of their leaders to the fascist threat, were attracted by Marxism and the ``great experiment'' in the Soviet Union. Yet some who knew Blunt thought his political sense was almost nil and they could only attribute his communism to the facts that many of his fellow Apostles (including Guy Burgess) were Communists and communism was then ``fashionable.'' Indeed, it is possible that Blunt's very lack of political intelligence may have contributed to his involvement in politics.