For a man who started his career as an architect and then a landscape painter, spending a year sketching spies in the deserts of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq was an unexpected career move, but for James Hart Dyke, it was one which produced a remarkable series of works which went on display at London’s Mount Street Galleries this week.
A series of suitably clandestine encounters with representatives from the British security services led eventually to a meeting with John Scarlett, the head of MI6 – the UK’s foreign intelligence agency. As part of MI6’s gradual opening up to the public – its existence was officially denied until 1994 – it now openly recruits on university campuses across the country – Scarlett wanted to give the public an insight into what the organization actually does, so as to correct the sinister reputation given it by programmes such as Spooks and novels like those of John Le Carré and Ian Flemming. “This organisation is surrounded by myths and legends. And while that can be a good thing, it’s not always. 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. We wanted to do something that would pass the core values of the service from one generation to another – and painting, because it’s such a flexible medium, was the way to capture that”.
To that end, Hart Dyke – well known to the establishment as an artist to several of Prince Charles’ royal tours – was approached to be embedded with MI6 staff for a year so as to produce an artistic biography of the organization. Only being able to tell his family that he was doing “some work for the government”, Hart Dyke tailed spies right around the world, from the nerve centre of MI6’s headquarters in London to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
Many of the works are exactly what you would expect: Several very dark, murky pictures of shadowy figures lurking on street corners – Dog Walker shows an MI6 operative using walking his pet as an excuse to meet a contact who lurks almost imperceptibly in the back of the picture while Espionage shows an apparently normal rain-sodden London street, encouraging you to turn spy yourself – scrutinising the picture trying to find what is out of place. “In the world of the spy, extraordinary events happen in the midst of the mundane,” says Hart-Dyke of Espionage. “Once you’re part of that world, you’re never sure that things are as they seem. Is this an ordinary day in a city or is it the scene of an SIS operation?”, he adds, wryly.
Alongside some of the more intentionally mysterious images, there are many which aim to reflect the more mundane aspect of life as an intelligence officer. The picture that Hart-Dyke says is most representative is Waiting in a Hotel Room, showing a man standing in a plain, unassuming room “There’s a lot of hanging around,” says Hart Dyke, “You’re in a completely ordinary place, waiting for something quite extraordinary to happen… and often waiting for a long time.” “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.” One of the most striking of these more everyday images is It’s a Lonely Business, ostensibly an ordinary woman shopping alone on a dark street. Her faced is turned towards the shadows, however, indicating that although spies are forced to live quite ordinary lives for much of the time, their training instills in them an ever-present heightened awareness and suspicion of the world around them.
The closeness of access Hart-Dyke was granted comes across in a series of quick but well-observed sketches: the intimate, understated Sleeping Officer was sketched in the cramped conditions of a military transport plane coming back from Afghanistan. Hart-Dyke’s pedigree as a landscape artist shines through in a number of stunning images of exotic but dangerous foreign places, of which The Crossed Swords, a view of the huge sword-wielding arms installed by Saddam in central Baghdad, and Early Morning over Kabul are the highlights.
There are also a series of surprisingly playful and more interpretative pictures playing on insider knowledge. We can only wonder what Dog on the Round – a greyhound sitting in front of coloured circles – is supposed to mean, but no doubt it will raise a knowing smile from officers as they walk past it when it hangs in the MI6 headquarters. That is what is so remarkable about Hart-Dyke’s collection – it opens up an institution that has been secretive for so long but allows it to maintain a distance; it gives us an insight into the intelligence world but at the same time keeps us in the dark, and it in the shadows.