The third season of Netflix’s The Crown, which traces the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II from the years 1964 to 1977, premiered last night with a look at the salacious past of the monarch’s former art surveyor, Anthony Blunt. Veteran English actor Samuel West plays the part.
Blunt, a British art historian, is believed to have been recruited by Soviet spies while he was studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s. The KGB agent went undetected for years, and was appointed the art surveyor at Buckingham Palace in 1945 by Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI. He was charged with overseeing the royal family’s collection of works by Rembrandt, Monet, Artemisia Gentileschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and numerous other figures.
In the dramatized portrayal of Blunt’s tenure at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip encounter the art historian’s preparations for an exhibition of early modern European artworks from the royal holdings at the Guildhall Gallery in London. Pointing to a work by Annibale Carracci, Philip inquires, “Who’s that by?” When he learns the Baroque painter’s name, Philip replies, gruffly, “Never heard of him,” adding of the family’s knowledge of art, “We’re country people, really.”
Blunt, whose secret dealings the episode also touches on, served as director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and he published a number of important texts, including a monograph of painter Nicolas Poussin and the book Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700.
In 1964, the year that episode one kicks off, Blunt was discovered by MI5 intelligence officer Arthur Martin, though the art surveyor was given immunity in exchange for a full confession. So as to protect the British intelligence community from humiliation and criticism, Blunt was allowed to maintain his position at Buckingham Palace for 15 more years, until Margaret Thatcher divulged his political treachery to Parliament in 1979. He was subsequently stripped of his knighthood by the Queen. (In The Crown, Blunt concludes a lecture on Carracci’s 1585 painting Allegory of Truth and Time when MI5 shows up to interrogate him.)
He said at the time that he felt he’d “made an appalling mistake,” and explained that he was initially drawn to work for the Soviet Union as a way to “serve the cause of anti-fascism.” Blunt added, “This was a case of political conscience against loyalty to country. I chose conscience.” He died in 1983.