The artist who spied on MI6
It was a top-secret mission he couldn't refuse - reports the Guardian
. Painter James Hart Dyke was assigned to shadow spooks for a year, sketchbook in hand. What did he learn about their mysterious world?
'I'll come straight to the point," said "M", looking across the desk at his top agent. "I've got a job for you, Bond. I want you to start painting. Show the world out there what this organisation is really all about. Show them the world of spying, Bond. Show it like it is . . . put it on canvas with a brush and paints . . ."
In all his fictitious exploits, Ian Fleming's James Bond never did get to be a painter. But about 18 months ago, proving that life is often stranger than fiction, a conversation much like this really did take place. Sitting behind the desk was the then head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett â who was known, as all heads of MI6 are, not as "M" but as "C", for chief â and opposite him, a rather dapper man in his early 40s by the name of James. Not a spy called James Bond, but an artist called James Hart Dyke.
Hart Dyke, a painter who has accompanied Prince Charles as official artist on four royal tours, and been embedded as a war artist with the Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, suspected an elaborate joke when he was approached by MI6, the government secret service that deals with overseas intelligence-gathering. "It sounded so unlikely that I reckoned someone was having me on," he says. His first brush with the spooks was a mysterious phone call â "it was from someone I'd once worked with, I can't tell you who" â followed by a meeting over a drink in a pub. "We found a quiet corner, and he sketched out the landscape. Basically, I was being asked to infiltrate MI6 as an artist! It sounded extraordinary. I couldn't have made it up."
Meetings at MI6's fortress-like HQ in south London followed, at which Hart Dyke was told that he would have to operate within strict parameters. Hart Dyke, who trained as an architect at the Royal College of Art and made his name as a landscape painter, was given access to M16, but not paid by the service. "The chief told me that keeping identities hidden would be crucial â there was no way this project could compromise the safety of the officers or the agents. And I wasn't allowed, either, to identify the locations I visited."
But in every way they could, the bosses at MI6 allowed Hart Dyke to sample the life of an undercover agent â with sketchbook and pencil in hand. "I had a pass so I could go in and out of the HQ building, and I travelled to other MI6 centres in the UK and overseas â MI6 works in around 80 countries across the world. I saw where the officers work, how they live, and what they do. As far as possible, I was 'one of them' â I don't believe I was ever in any danger, but I know that very often the world of spying and espionage is very dangerous. And of course I often saw people wondering what I was really up to â I saw officers looking at me as I sketched away and they seemed to be thinking, oh yes â an artist, are you? A likely story . . ."
Suspicion, after all, is part of the psyche of the spying business: and Hart Dyke became aware of the low-level suspicion â of people and of events â that, of necessity, permeates every day for a spy. "What struck me most â and I've tried to get this across in my paintings â is the intriguing interface between the mundane and the totally unexpected. So, for example, you'll be in a totally normal setting â on a busy street perhaps, or in a hotel bar â but you're waiting for something completely out-of-the-ordinary â a tip-off or an information drop. In the midst of an entirely innocent-seeming event, something entirely 'other' is taking place."
As a result, many of the paintings depict the most everyday of settings (a street corner, a hotel bedroom, a row of parked cars) populated by ordinary-looking people (a middle-aged woman in a coat and hat, a man in a leather jacket, a smart-looking woman carrying a briefcase). It's only when you know that the exhibition that's resulted from the project â which opens to the public on Tuesday â is entitled A Year With MI6 that you think twice about his subjects' motives. Does the woman standing on the street corner have a penchant for outsize handbags, or is she carrying a sheaf of secret documents to hand over to a contact? Is that man in the leather jacket glancing over his shoulder to look out for traffic, or to check he isn't being watched? And are that man and woman sitting in a bar strangers about to fall in love, or is she an MI6 officer who's about to infiltrate the life of a "target" by chatting him up?
Nothing is as it seems in the world of MI6 â and that's what Hart Dyke has tried to convey. Some of his work seems almost surreal â but for an agent the world probably is pretty surreal. So a picture of a grey dog looking up at a ball, or a doughnut on a pink-striped tablecloth, seem random images but, says Hart Dyke, they're loaded with meaning for certain officers who have taken part in certain operations. Likewise the fact that many of the paintings are either washed entirely in green or feature a heavy use of the colour: inside MI6, "C" is the only person who writes in green ink, following a tradition established by the organisation's founder, Mansfield Cumming.
One of the biggest revelations for Hart Dyke â and possibly the biggest "secret" his paintings reveal â is how different the reality is from the mythology. "It's not James Bond," he says. "The work real MI6 officers and agents do is nothing like as glitzy as the image. Some of it is very fast-moving and exciting, but what you don't get in fictional accounts is any sense of how much time is spent sitting around, waiting for something that might, but very often doesn't, happen."
Scarlett â now retired from MI6 and working, among other projects, as a senior adviser to Morgan Stanley â says the idea of inviting an artist in came from MI6 officers themselves, as part of the run-up to the 2010 centenary year. "We brought people together from across the service and we asked them how they thought we should mark our first 100 years," he says. "And there was a feeling that, because of the secrecy of our organisation, we've not been able to celebrate its spirit in the way that other organisations can. They said they wanted to do something that would pass the core values of the service from one generation to another â and painting, because it's such a flexible medium, was the way to capture that.
"This organisation is surrounded by myths and legends. And while that can be a good thing, it's not always." The dearth of information about the secret services has provided a vacuum that Ian Fleming, Ben Richards (the author of Spooks), John le CarrÃ© and many other writers have been only too happy to fill, but what we read, and watch, isn't the whole, or even very much of, the truth.
So, in an age obsessed with marketing and self-image, is this an attempt at PR â albeit from the last organisation likely to blow its own trumpet? No, says Scarlett. "It's because this is an important part of the machinery of government, and it's important that people understand why it's here and what it does." Until the 90s, even the chief's identity was a secret. Then, during his tenure as boss, Scarlett gave an interview, and the present incumbent, John Sawers, was the first "C" to make a speech in public. Last year also saw the publication of a history of the organisation. But Scarlett says he doesn't believe the art project is part of a gradual opening-up of the service. "It's a very unusual departure, and it's only going to happen once," he promises.
Hart Dyke's exhibition should prove an unexpected treat for that section of the British public who are endlessly fascinated by spies and their world. The show comprises around 40 paintings, 25 drawings, and prints â all for sale. MI6 did not commission Hart Dyke, but he has given it some pictures as a gift. The paintings on show have all, needless to say, been carefully vetted by the organisation â some, says Hart Dyke, have had to be altered so that sensitive information was not revealed.
For the cognoscenti, there are plenty of insider clues and tips. Scarlett praises the paintings and drawings as highly evocative of life inside MI6. "I'm hugely impressed with what he's done," he says. "It's remarkable. He's genuinely understood this place and what we're about; I'm very enthusiastic about the paintings, and I'm really pleased that some of them will remain here in our offices, so we can pass a sense of the organisation now on to future generations of staff.
"James has absolutely caught the sense of adventure amid ordinary life that is MI6. I won't be the only person here who will look at a painting set in a hotel room or on board a plane and think: I know that scene so well. And he's captured the perennial spirit of our operation â it's all about patriotism, mixed with doing our very best to protect British interests."
For his part, Hart Dyke is looking forward to ending his "spook" status. Just like a real spy, he wasn't able to tell anyone except his wife and his parents that he was working with MI6. "Living a double life was a strain," he says. "When people asked me what I was working on, I had to say something very vague or tell a cover story about doing something for the government. I'll be glad to get back to ordinary life . . . though I doubt I'll ever do anything quite as fascinating as this again."
A Year with MI6 is at the Mount Street Galleries, London W1, February 15-26. www.jameshartdyke.com
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