Sir Anthony Blunt sat here often

HOME HOUSE IN London’s Portman Square was completed in 1777 for the wealthy Elizabeth Home, Countess of Home (c1703-1784). Born in Jamaica into a slave-owning family, her wealth was produced by the unpaid labour of slaves imported from Africa. The house is remarkable, especially for its intricately detailed interior décor designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).

In 1933, Home House became home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, now part of the University of London. A close friend of mine, now sadly deceased, studied at the Courtauld for both his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate. Whilst writing his doctoral thesis, my friend was supervised by Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). Blunt was the director of the Courtauld from 1947 to 1974. He was also in charge of the Royal Collections of art from 1945 onwards. In addition, he carried out much important scholarly work in the field of history of art. Blunt, as director of the Courtauld, was given a flat in Home House.

Until 1979, few people knew, or even suspected, that Blunt had been involved with spying for the Soviet Union.  When this came out into the public domain, Blunt’s downfall commenced. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship at Cambridge’s Trinity College was rescinded. Also, Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy. Soon after his exposure as an espionage agent, who worked against his own country for the Soviet Union, Blunt ceased residing at Home House. In 1989, the Courtauld Institute shifted from Home House to larger premises in Somerset House in the Strand. Home House remained vacant until 1998, by which time it had been beautifully restored and adapted to become a private social club. During a recent visit to Home House when we were entertained by a friend, our host, a member, took us to see an interesting exhibit, which is housed in the wash basin area of one of the Club’s unisex toilets. We were shown a glass-fronted display case containing a wooden furniture item. It bears a label with the words: “From the bathroom of Sir Anthony Blunt”. The labelled object is the toilet seat on which Blunt must have sat numerous times, and its wooden lid. Another case in the room contains Blunt’s telephone. Although the loo seat and the ‘phone are unremarkable except for their provenance, the rest of Home House is a visual delight.

Artists and secret agents

A REMARKABLE ENGINEER and furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived at 37 Belsize Park Gardens, in London’s Hampstead district. before WW2. Pritchard, who studied engineering and economics at the University of Cambridge, joined Venesta, a company that specialised in plywood goods. It was after this that he began to promote Modernist design. In 1929, he and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation.

Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then new ideas for communal housing that had been realised in Germany including the influential Bauhaus in Dessau. The flats are close to Fleet Road and the Mall Studios in Parkhill Road. Completed in 1934, they were, noted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, “… a milestone in the introduction of the modern idiom to London.” He continued, writing in 1952, clearly critical of the edifice, which:

“…put on a forbidding face towards the street, with large unmitigated concrete surfaces … It is all in the spirit of revolution, unaccommodating and direct to the verge of brutality.”

Well, I quite like the building’s elegant simplicity. In the basement space of the block, there was a refreshment area known as the Isobar. This and its furniture were designed by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Regularly, exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in The Modern House Journal these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians. Pritchard occupied the penthouse flat. In 1969, he sold the block, and now it contains accommodation for 25 keyworkers on a shared ownership basis and 11 flats are in private ownership. The block, first known as the Lawn Road Flats, is now called ‘Isokon. Lawn Road Flats’.

T F T Baker, Diane K Bolton and Patricia E C Croot, writing in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington, noted that the Lawn Road Flats were built partly to house artistic refugees, who had fled from parts of Europe then oppressed by dictators, notably by Adolf Hitler. Some of them had been associated with the Bauhaus. These included the architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and the artist and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). All three of them are regarded as being masters of 20th century visual arts.

Despite both having come from bourgeois backgrounds, the Pritchards aimed to free themselves from middle-class conventions. The concept and realisation of the Lawn Road Flats, were important landmarks in their quest to achieve a new, alternative way of living. It is accurate to say that the atmosphere that prevailed in the community that either lived in, or frequented, the Lawn Road Flats was predominantly left-wing and extremely welcoming to cultural refugees from Nazi Germany. Probably, it had not been anticipated that the place should become a convenient place for Stalin’s Soviet spies to use as a base. According to a small booklet about the flats Isokon The Story of a New Vision of Urban Living, published in 2016, the flats were home to the following espionage agents, who had been recruited by the NKVD in Central Europe: Arnold Deutsch, Simon Kremer, Jürgen Kuczinski, and Brigitte Kucynski Lewis. Jill Pearlman, one of the book’s several authors, noted that they found the Lawn Road Flats convenient for several reasons:

“Above all, they blended inconspicuously into the sociable community of tenants there. Many tenants too were refugees from Central Europe … Even the Lawn Road Flats building worked well for the spies. One could enter and exit any unit without being seen … no one could see in. At the same time, the cantilevered decks on each floor provided the tenants a perfect vantage point from which to survey the street below.”

Today, there is a small exhibition area in the garage of the flats. This is open on some weekends, but I have yet to visit it.

The spy in the pond

QUEENSMERE POND on Wimbledon is surrounded by woodland. It was dug in marshland to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. In the 1830s, the area was a popular duelling ground.

In 1984, the corpse of a former Soviet spy Boris Hatton was discovered in the pond. On the 1st of March 1984, The London “Times” newspaper reported:

“Mr Boris Hatton, formerly Baklanov, a former assassin with SMERSH, part of Soviet wartime military intelligence, may have committed suicide or he may have been murdered. Dr Paul Knapman. the coroner at a Westminster inquest, recorded an open verdict, saying ‘It is not impossible that there may be other sinister factors in view of his past’.

Mr Hatton, aged 59, the son of prominent Soviet Commu-nist Party member between the wars, had been a strong swimmer and never spoke of suicide, the court was told.His son Phillip, an accountant. of Westerham, Kent, said that his father defected after the Second World War because SMERSH, wanted him to assassinate dissidents against Communism which his conscience would not allow.”

For 10 years he worked as a researcher at The Daily Telegraph.”Well, I would never imagined that this had happened when I watched a swan with its cygnets swimming lazily by the edge of the lovely pond.

She died for the Empire

I HAVE MISLAID my copy of “Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan” by Jean Overton Fuller (1915 -2009), first published in 1952. Jean was born in England, the only child of an officer in the British Indian Army. She was a friend of the Inayat Khan family, one of whom was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (1914-1944). At the end of WW2, Jean travelled around Europe interviewing people who had been connected with Noor’s activities during WW2.

 

Noor 4

A few days ago, during a pleasant walk in London’s West End, we stopped near Hyde Park Corner to look at the memorial to those citizens of the Indian subcontinent who had fought for the British Empire during the two World Wars. Part of the memorial is a small pavilion that looks Indian in design. The ceiling of this structure is inscribed with the names of those who were awarded the prestigious George Cross and Victoria Cross awards during the two Wars. We looked up at the names, not expecting to see any that we would recognise, but were both surprised and pleased to see that one of the names is ‘Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’, who was awarded the George Cross, posthumously. Noor and her family were not people we knew, but her story was familiar to us.

Noor was born on the first day of 1914 in Moscow, where her father had arrived (from Baroda, now in Gujarat) in 1913 to promote Sufism in the ‘West’. Her father’s family were Muslim nobility, her father’s mother was a descendant of the great Tipu Sultan, who died in 1799, fighting the British. Her mother was an American of European origin.  Shortly after Noor’s birth, her family shifted to London, where Noor attended a nursery in Notting Hill. By 1920, the family had moved to Paris. At the outbreak of WW2, the family fled to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall.

During WW2, after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (‘WAAF’), she soon became a member of Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), where she underwent tough training. Already a trained wireless operator, she had an advantage over other women who were to be ‘courier’s, who worked behind the enemy lines helping to support those resisting the Nazis. Her fluency in French was another advantage that Noor had over many of the other couriers. Also, her appearance was such that it could easily have been considered European.

Noor was flown from Britain to Europe on the night of 16th /17th June 1943 and landed in northern France. Her courageous exploits have been well-described in a detailed book by Shrabani Basu, “Spy Princess”, published in 2006. Sadly, her presence in France was betrayed (by one of two Frenchmen), and she was first arrested by the Gestapo on about the 13th of October 1943. After intense interrogation, during which she revealed nothing of use to the Germans and nothing that compromised her comrades,  she was shot at dawn in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in September 1944. In addition to being awarded the George Cross, Noor was also a posthumous recipient of the French Croix-de-Guerre. A commemorative blue plaque on her last home in London, 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, was the first to be put up in honour of a woman of Indian origin.

Michael Richard Daniell (‘MRD’) Foot (1919-2012, the historian and former member of SOE, wrote in his introduction to Basu’s book:

“Holders of the George Cross are out of the common run; Noor Inayat Khan was even farther out of it than most.”

The memorial near Wellington’s triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner was inaugurated in 2002. In addition to recording Noor’s name, there are over seventy other names of those awarded either the VC or the GC. Many of them have Indian sounding names, such as Noor’s, but a few have names that sound English, such as FC Booth and ECT Wilson. The Indian names suggest a fair mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh recipients of these medals. Of the Indian recipients, or those who have Indian sounding names, of the two honours, the VC and the GC, awarded during WW2, the only one who was involved in behind-the-lines espionage and resistance activities was the young Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was in favour of Britain giving India her freedom, ending its status as a colony within the British Empire. However, unlike some of the fighters for Indian independence like Subhas Chandra Bose, who favoured an alliance with the enemies of Britain during WW2, she was, to quote Basu:

“… convinced that Indian leaders should not press for independence when Britain had its hands full of fighting the war. She felt that if the Indians backed Britain and won gallantry medals it would create a sense of confidence in them, and the British would readily grant independence to India after the war…”

After WW1, there were 22 Indian recipients of VC and GC, but Britain did not relieve its domination of India. Instead, it began to tighten its grip. Noor and the other awardees of the high honours for bravery as recorded in the monument near Hyde Park Corner demonstrated the gallantry of people from the Indian sub-continent, but I am sure that this was not part of the reason that Britain released its long hold on its prize colonial possession in 1947.

I am sorry that I cannot find my copy of Overton Fuller’s biography of Noor. It is the source of some of the information in Basu’s book, which contains much material that Overton Fuller did not have access to when she wrote her book. When I find it eventually, it will be interesting to compare what the earlier author wrote about Noor with what Basu wrote 54 years later.