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The fourth man speaks: Last testimony of Anthony Blunt

After 25 years locked away, the memoirs of a Cambridge spy have finally been released. Andy McSmith discovers what drove him to betray his country

Avery sad, isolated old man set down to write an account of his life, 25 years ago, hoping that he might explain the terrible mistake that had hung over the whole of his adult life.

Yesterday the public got its first view of the last testimony of Anthony Blunt, art historian and Soviet spy, which had been kept under a lock and key in the British Library since he died, subject to a 25-year rule banning anyone from reading them. The quarter century is now up and anyone curious enough can join the queue of readers at the library to dip into a long memoir by an old man looking back on a life soured by what he called the, "biggest mistake of my life".

He had confessed in 1964 but his treachery and confession were kept as state secret for 15 years until, in 1979, the writer Andrew Boyle used the US Freedom of Information Act, for which there was then no British equivalent, to tease out the fact that there was an unnamed "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy ring. Margaret Thatcher then identified that person as Sir Anthony, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures.

He describes the start of his fascination with Guy Burgess, the man who drew him into the murky world of espionage. When they first met, in 1931, Blunt was 24 and a don at Trinity College in Cambridge while Burgess was a 20-year-old undergraduate. They were both gay, but Blunt denies they were ever lovers.

At first he was put off by the younger man, "because he began immediately to talk very indiscreetly about the private lives of people who were quite unknown to me". But later he fell for "the liveliness and penetrating quality of his mind".

Blunt wrote: "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. His sex life was already fairly full, but he did not blazon it about as he was to do later."

Blunt was not then interested in politics, despite the events unfolding in Europe, but Burgess was. "I found that Cambridge had been hit by Marxism and that most of my friends among my junior contemporaries – including Guy Burgess – had either joined the Communist Party or were at least very close to it politically.

"Eventually, largely owing to the influence of Guy Burgess ... I realised that one could no longer stand aside. The issue of Fascism, as posed by the advent to power of Hitler and later by the Spanish Civil War, became so urgent that the Ivory Tower no longer provided adequate refuge."

Blunt considered following his friend's lead by joining the Communist Party, until Burgess revealed the startling secret that he had resigned on instructions from the Comintern, who wanted him working for them inside the government or the BBC.

"I was thus faced with the most important decision of my life. I might have joined the Communist Party, but Guy, who was an extraordinarily persuasive person, convinced me that I could do more good by joining him in his work. What I did not realise at the time is that I was so naïve politically that I was not justified in committing myself to any political action of this kind. The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life."

Blunt also confirmed what historians of the spy trade have long suspected, that Burgess fled east on impulse. Investigators were closing in on Donald Maclean, a London-based diplomat known to his soviet spymasters as "Homer". Burgess and the leader of the Cambridge spy ring, Kim Philby, were in New York. Philby persuaded Burgess to cross the Atlantic to warn Maclean, not expecting they would both flee to the USSR.

Blunt insists he played no "active part" in arranging their escape plan via a cross-Channel ferry to France, although he acknowledged that he had been in "constant contact" with Burgess throughout."I may have conveyed a message from Guy to his Russian contact but I have no recollection of even doing this," he wrote.

But after that, anyone expecting a story resembling a John le Carré novel is in for a disappointing read. Blunt gave no details away about how he first contacted the NKVD, the foreunner of the KGB, nor how he stayed in contact with his Russian controllers, or what information he passed on. No names are mentioned except for those already well known. "I simply found it unthinkable that I should denounce my friends; and it certainly never occurred to me to do so," he wrote.

He was obviously anxious to dispel the wilder stories about Burgess's sexual activities and the house they shared in Bentinck Street, west London, where it was suggested that life was an "alternation of sexual orgies and conspiratorial conversations designed to hinder the war effort" when the inhabitants were in fact immersed in war work that left them "too tired to behave in the manner suggested". He added: "It is true that Guy had a number of friends who visited him regularly, but it was a rule of the house that causal pick-up was forbidden; and Guy observed this rule."

After 1945, Blunt wanted to put it all behind him. "In fact I was disillusioned about Marxism as well as about Russia. What I personally hoped to do was to hear no more of my Russian friends, to return to my normal academic life. Of course it was not as simple as that, because there remained the fact that I knew of the continuing activities of Guy, Donald, and Kim."

The rest of his memoir is about his life as an art historian in which he took justifiable pride. At age 70, he had an outstanding reputation as a specialist in the works of Nicolas Poussin. He had been a director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and professor of history of art at London University. In 1945, he was appointed Surveyor of the King's Pictures and continued in this role for decades on behalf of the Queen. It was for that that he was knighted in 1956.

His world was smashed to pieces in 1979 after the writer Andrew Boyle published a book called The Climate of Treason . Boyle had established that there was a fourth member of the Cambridge spy ring and had spoken to a journalist named Goronwy Rees who described how Blunt had once told him that betraying your friends was worse than betraying your country, a dictum he took from EM Forster. Boyle did not quite have the evidence to accuse the Queen's art historian of being an ex-spy, so identified him only by the pseudonym, "Maurice", a reference to Forster's novel about homosexuality.

After the book appeared, Margaret Thatcher told an astonished House of Commons in November 1979 that the man renowned as the virtual founder of the Courtaulds Institute was indeed a former Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and for the remainder of his life could not show his face without being recognised. In his memoirs, though, he records his pleasant surprise that he received 200 to 300 supportive letters and only six that were hostile.

Brian Sewell, 78, who was tutored by Blunt and became a close friend, said Blunt found it impossible to research his past. "He was very worried about getting dates wrong, but as an immediately recognisable figure, any time he went anywhere where he could have backed up any of these events, he couldn't do it. He couldn't get to the newspaper libraries. Nobody would give him any help. In the end he simply gave up. I always thought that it would turn out to be the damp squib of all damp squibs."

Cambridge spy ring: What they did next

Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean

In 1951, a major scandal erupted when the two high ranking government officials defected to the Soviet Union. Maclean, a diplomat based in London, was due to be interrogated as a suspected Soviet spy. Burgess, a double agent working inside MI5, flew from New York to warn him, and decided to flee with him, though he was not under suspicion.

Kim Philby

For years after the Burgess and Maclean affair there were rumours of a "third man" in the spy ring. Philby was suspected because he and Burgess had been fellow students at Cambridge. He bluffed his way out of trouble, but fled to the USSR in 1963 when he was under investigation again. He was probably the most effective and dangerous Soviet agent ever to infiltrate British intelligence.

John Cairncross

There were even rumours of a "fifth man" but his name did not emerge until 1990, when the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky fingered John Cairncross, another Cambridge graduate, who worked at the Bletchley spy centre during the war. He confessed in 1951. His confession, like Blunt's, was kept secret, and he was allowed to emigrate. He denied being the "fifth man".