Richard Reinsch’s review in these pages of a new book on Alger Hiss has caused me to remember another figure from that era, the great art historian Sir Anthony Blunt, and the truly extraordinary long essay that George Steiner wrote about him in the New Yorker, in 1980.
The first part of the essay details Blunt’s achievements as an art historian, with particular emphasis on the scrupulosity with which he determined the provenance of disputed works — a scrupulosity that made him quite valuable to the Queen when items in her own collections needed scrutiny. This part of Steiner’s essay culminates in his account of the festschrift commissioned for Blunt late in his career:
Here some of the most distinguished historians of art and of architecture paid genuine tribute to a master in the field and to an exemplary teacher by publishing essays that mirrored his own high standards and catholicity of insight. But even beyond the honor done to the scholar and the expositor there is the homage to the man. What Professor Blunt’s peers and associates throughout the academic world, at the National Art Collections Fund, in the National Trust (the foremost body for the preservation of Britain’s historical heritage), in museums, and, one has reason to believe, in the royal entourage wished to express unreservedly was their sense of Sir Anthony’s ‘qualities of intellect and moral integrity’. The two so obviously went together.
This is followed by a section break, and then this sentence: “I do not know just when Blunt was recruited into Soviet espionage.”
And so Steiner raises the harrowing and fascinating question: How could an absolute integrity in a man’s professional life co-exist with a long-term willingness to betray his country, and in so doing betray some of his countrymen to their deaths? Steiner’s brilliant pursuit of this question cannot be summarized, but the whole essay, while not available at the New Yorker’s website, can be found, quite legally, here. It is titled “The Cleric of Treason,” and I can’t praise it highly enough. It is certainly among the top ten Essays I Wish I Had Written.
P.S. I would also highly recommend Alan Bennett’s thoughtfully speculative play about Blunt and Queen Elizabeth, “A Question of Attribution” — the film, with James Fox as Blunt and Prunella Scales as the Queen, is superb.