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Blunt, Anthony

    Image Credit: The British Academy

    Full Name: Blunt, Anthony

    Other Names:

    • Anthony Blunt

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1907

    Date Died: 1983

    Place Born: Bournemouth, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): French (culture or style) and Italian (culture or style)

    Career(s): educators


    Historian of French and Italian art; Warburg Institute professor; director of the Courtauld Institute; Soviet spy. Blunt was born to minor privilege, his father, Arthur Stanley Vaughan Blunt (1870-1929), the chaplain to the British Embassy in Paris. His mother was Hilda Master Blunt (1880-1969). From early on, he gained an appreciation for French art and architecture. Like his brothers would, Blunt received a scholarship to Marlborough College. His first position, upon graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1930, was as art critic for the (London) Spectator. In 1932 he was elected a fellow of the College, largely on the strength of his dissertation on artistic theory of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his early newspaper reviews, he championed modern art. But ever more steadily persuaded by Marxism, he recanted his views by 1934 and staunchly wrote against it. It was during this period that he was recruited by the Soviet agent Guy Burgess. During the 1936-1937 academic year he resigned his fellowship at Cambridge to be a reader in the History of Art at the University of London and, in 1939, Deputy Director (and Reader) at the Courtauld Institute. Blunt shared living quarters in the Courtauld building, the famous Robert Adam stucture at 22 Portman Square with the director, T. S. R. Boase. In 1940 he joined the British counter-intelligence unit MI5, remaining in London with the unit throughout the war. It was during this period that Blunt is suspected of divulging important secrets to the Soviets while maintaining and outstanding scholarly career. The same year he published a portion of his dissertation as Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600, still the finest introduction to the topic. The next year, in addition to many articles in the Warburg Journal, Blunt issued a book on the French architect Francois Mansart. Blunt left MI5 in 1945 and accepted appointment as surveyor of the King’s Pictures. He maintained this appointment until 1972. In 1947 he succeeded Boase as Director of the Courtauld Institute and professor at the University of London. At Boase’s suggestion, Blunt hired two of the Courtauld’s most famous (and radically different from Blunt) scholars, Christopher Hohler as lecturer and Johannes Wilde as Readers. The 1950s saw the completion of a volume of the Pelican History of Art series and an ever broadening stream of scholarship on Nicolas Poussin. He was knighted in 1956. Blunt wrote the catalog for the seminal Poussin exhibition at the Louvre in 1960. At the Courtauld, Blunt advanced George Zarnecki to be his deputy director in 1961. By the early 1960s, however, his spying secret was beginning to unravel. Forced by information uncovered by the United States FBI, Blunt signed a secret confession admitting to activities of treason. At nearly the same time, his comprehensive catalogue raisonné on Poussin appeared (1966) and Blunt was awarded an honorary fellowship at Trinity College the next year. Blunt lived quietly in the 1970s, turning his scholarly attentions to the rococo in several major monographs. He retired from director in 1974. However, in 1979 his complicity with the Soviets broke to the public, along with the disclosure of his homosexuality. Scandal resulted and he was stripped of both his knighthood and fellowship at Trinity. While at work on a book of Pietro da Cortona, Blunt unexpectedly died at his London flat. Blunt’s brothers were Wilfrid Blunt, also an art historian, and Christopher Evelyn Blunt (1904-1987), a noted numismatist. Dissertations supervised by Blunt include the one on Cubism by John Golding, and ones on 19th-century French art by Lee Johnson, and Phoebe Pool. The Cortona book was completed by Jörg Martin Merz in 2008. Blunt’s life was an astonishing combination of eminent art history and long-standing espionage. His scholarship on the Baroque remains among the finest in the English language. His opinions on Poussin were so respected that even the French deferred to his judgment for the 1960 Poussin show. The Louvre show spawned a professional rivalry with the other British Poussin scholar, Denis Mahon, fomented in Blunt’s rejection of Mahon’s re-dating of Poussin’s Roman work, exchanged publicly in the 1960 issues of the Burlington Magazine. Together with Mahon, and the less scholarly writers Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell and Tancred Borenius, they brought Poussin to popularity in Britiain.

    Selected Bibliography

    “El Greco’s ‘Dream of Phillip II’ “: An Allegory of the Holy League.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 3 (1939-40): 58-69; Artistic Theory in Italy: 1450-1600. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940; François Mansart and the Origins of French Classical Architecture. London: The Warburg Institute, 1941; The Art and Architecture in France: 1500-1700. (Pelican History of Art, 4) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953; “The Precieux and French Art.” in Fritz Saxl, 1890-1948: A Volume of Memorial Essays. Ed. Donald J. Gordon. London: 1957: 326-38;Philibert de l’Orme. London: 1958. The Art of William Blake. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959; The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: Critical Catalogue. London: Phaidon, 1966; Nicolas Poussin. (Bollingen series 35, 7) (A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1958) New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1967; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. London: Oxford University Press, 1969; Neapolitan Baroque & Rococo Architecture. London: A. Zwemmer, 1975; andMerz, Jörg Martin. Pietro da Cortona and Roman Baroque Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 4, 51 mentioned, 68 cited, 70 cited, 83 cited, 88 cited; Bazin 519-518; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 90 mentioned; Dictionary of Art 4: 182; Dictionary of National Biography, 1981-85: 41-43; Ellis Waterhouse. Introduction to Studies in Renaissance & Baroque Art Presented to Anthony Blunt on his 60th Birthday. London: Phaidon, 1967. Penrose, Barrie. Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987; Carter, Miranda. Anthony Blunt: His Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett, LaNitra Michele Walker, and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett, LaNitra Michele Walker, and Lee Sorensen. "Blunt, Anthony." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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