So, I’ve recently started teaching undergrads. I’m having an enormous amount of fun – come on, my job is to sit in a room with smart people and have arguments about history – but also doing a lot of work, going back to material I haven’t covered in years and being forced to rethink some key questions in early modern history. This can be a particularly useful experience for a Ph.D student, since we easily get stuck thinking about really specialised corners of history and lose sight of bigger issues.
This is all by way of explaining why, late in the evening, I found myself ransacking the shelves of my college library for work on the art of the Dutch Golden Age. While doing so – and maybe with last week’s viewing of the 2003 BBC series on the Cambridge Spies fresh in my mind – I spotted an old copy of Anthony Blunt’s Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600. Blunt, of course, was a gifted fellow of Cambridge’s Trinity College, and one of a group of men who rose to high places in British society in the mid-century while constantly feeding information to Moscow as Soviet spies.
Blunt published Artistic Theory in Italy in 1940, the same year he joined MI5. Flicking through it (blame the heady mix of curiosity and procrastination that defines the graduate student), I came across this acknowledgement, in which Blunt thanks Guy Burgess – another of the Cambridge spies and the man Blunt claimed had recruited him to Soviet service – for “the stimulus of constant discussion and suggestions on all the more basic points at issue”.
Blunt’s memoirs, held in the British Library for 26 years after his death in 1983, described this very quality which had drawn him to Burgess: “He could be perverse both in argument and in behaviour, but in the former he would wriggle back to sense and in the latter he would apologise in such an engaging manner that it was difficult to be angry for long.” This letter recommending him for a position at the BBC, and this testimonial by his Cambridge tutor give some indication of the attractive, infuriating figure Burgess could be. And, to be fair, it’s difficult to dislike a character who managed to get the Telegraph’s back up about his BBC expenses nearly half a century after his death.
The thing that really got me about this bit in the preface, though, is that I wasn’t reading the 1940 edition. The book I’d found was a much later edition, printed in 1978. While he had been named to the FBI by Michael Straight in the mid-60s, and subsequently confessed to MI5, Blunt himself wasn’t unmasked publicly until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher named him in Parliament. When Artistic Theory was reprinted this time, Burgess was fifteen years dead, and remembered for his defection to Moscow in 1951. But Blunt, a year before his exposure as the ‘Fourth Man’, was still thanking his old friend for those perverse arguments and engaging apologies.
There’s something about the survival of this acknowledgement that stopped me in my tracks and made me want to share it. I’m resisting pinning a moral to the end of this; I don’t know that there is one. But maybe it stands for those moments we get in research when the past disentangles itself from the abstract and becomes, for a moment, something personal.