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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 18:08 GMT
Unearthing an interview with a spy
by Henrietta Foster
BBC Newsnight

Anthony Blunt
Blunt was stripped of knighthood after being exposed as a spy

It seems inconceivable that an academic institution with such an impressive global reputation as the Courtauld Institute is just 75 years old this year.

Most of our great museum directors went to the Courtauld - Neil MacGregor at the British Museum, Nicholas Serota at the Tate and even the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, is a Courtauld alumnus.

The most infamous person attached to the Courtauld is Anthony Blunt, exposed in 1979 as the "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy ring.

But it was under Blunt's guidance that the Courtauld became the place in Europe, if not the World, to study history of art.

During research for Newsnight, I uncovered an interview with Blunt, conducted by Courtauld's librarian just months after he had been stripped of his knighthood for his association with Soviet spies Burgess, Philby and Maclean.

It offers a fascinating glimpse into his life and the institute he spent more than a quarter of a century in charge of.

Courtauld archives

Maybe it is because the Courtauld has been housed in two of the finest 18th century buildings in London, first in Home House in Portman Square and now in Somerset House on the banks of the Thames that one thinks it dates from an earlier period.

Occasionally there was a tantalising mention of something fresh and exciting in the archives
I spent a lovely month in the Courtauld archives during the summer - despite the cellars of Somerset House having been the victim of a sewer explosion after flash floods. The library was covered in plastic sheeting and there was a very nasty lingering smell. People wandered around in bio-hazard outfits and Wellington boots. Not the usual attire one expects from art historians who are for the most part dressed in comfortable tweeds, Alice bands or punkette black that Vivienne Westwood would be proud of.

A lot of the archives were off-limits so I was left to leaf through the management reports of the institute from 1932 to the present day.

What was immediately obvious from reading the reports was just how much Anthony Blunt had changed the place.

Before he became director in 1947 the Courtauld was seen as a grand finishing school for girls whose parents wanted them to know more about the Renaissance or for Americans on a grand tour of Europe.

Tantalising

Miss Gurry in Venice
A passion for art - Miss Gurry on a trip to Venice
Even the horror movie star Vincent Price studied there in the early thirties after graduating from Yale.

The archives were little other than official papers and yet occasionally there was a tantalising mention of something fresh and exciting, such as Blunt's annotated 1934 guidebook to the Soviet Union - a visit he made on the eve of becoming a communist whilst he was at Cambridge - his personal correspondence and the mysterious Gurry tapes.

Lillian Gurry was librarian at the Courtauld and had been there since the beginning. She was a tiny, remarkable woman who had studied modern languages at Kings College in the Strand in the 1920s and developed a passion for history of art.

Brian Sewell recalls her telling him about her trip to Italy in the 1930s. Not well off, yet desperate to see the wonders of Rome, she spent every night on the Roman pavements in a sleeping bag.

But what were the Gurry tapes and more importantly where were they?

After much research we found them in an old shoe box behind a stack of books. Recorded in 1980, I believe they must have been made for the 50th anniversary of the Courtauld in 1982.

Miss Gurry was given a brief lesson on how to record on the machine and sent off to interview former Courtauld staff and students. The lesson was obviously not sufficient as every tape has a moment where she asks the machine if it is recording and fiddles about with the sound.

But what audio there is is priceless.

Traitorous activities

It offers a unique glimpse into the hidden world of Britain's first art history institution - the romances, the failed love affairs, the bossy benefactors and the complicated political climate.

We learnt that one member of staff was an ardent fascist whilst there were also a few open communists - amongst them Anthony Blunt.

Blunt's own recording was made six months after he had been exposed as a spy for the Soviet Union and all his honours had been stripped from him.

People spat at him in the street and even a simple trip to the greengrocer resulted in someone upbraiding him for his traitorous activities.

Anthony Blunt at his desk
Blunt was Courtauld director from 1947 until 1974
Throughout it all Miss Gurry had remained a loyal friend, cooking him suppers and popping into his mansion flat for a chat. You can hear the warmth of her friendship for her former boss in her conversation with him.

Blunt for his part is not at all lofty or grand. He imitates Samuel Courtauld, the eponymous founder of the institute and laughs at his own inadequacies as a lecturer at the beginning of his art history career.

He even talks about a student mural of the staff where he is carrying a glass of wine and a copy of Karl Marx.

Here is a hunted man who suddenly for a brief moment has been allowed to recall happier days with an old and trusted colleague.

And what of Miss Gurry?

Sadly she is no longer alive but everyone we interviewed had fond memories of their former librarian and of her great kindness.

But now, thanks to Newsnight and the discovery of Miss Gurry's tapes, the people who own Home House are considering uncovering the staff wall mural - complete with Blunt and his copy of Karl Marx.


Audio courtesy Courtauld Institute and pictures of Miss Gurry and Anthony Blunt at his desk are courtesy Professor Kerry Downes and the Courtauld Institute.

SEE ALSO
BBC History - Cambridge Spies
23 Jan 08 |  Newsnight
1979 - Blunt exposed as spy
23 Jan 08 |  Newsnight

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