The fine art of foreign espionage

British artist was hired to depict the ambiguous world of the Secret Intelligence Service
The fine art of foreign espionage
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Spies, when they do their jobs well, are unnoticed. They don’t draw attention to their work, and their successes are rarely celebrated or even acknowledged.

It is understandable, then, that when British artist James Hart Dyke was approached with an offer to embed with the Secret Intelligence Service, the British foreign spy agency known as MI6, to capture the agency’s life on canvas to mark its centenary, he suspected it was a joke. But the offer—made over a quiet cup of coffee—was real. Soon Hart Dyke, a painter who has previously worked as a war artist with the Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, was ushered into a world few outside it get to see.

Hart Dyke had to sign the Official Secrets Act, forbidding him from discussing his assignment until it was over. There were also some limits placed on where he could go and what he could see. He didn’t shadow agents on assignments in the field, for example. And he was not permitted to identify anyone in his art. But he says the agency was open and welcoming, even if some of its officers seemed suspicious when he told them what he was doing in their offices, sketchbook in hand. Hart Dyke had a pass for MI6 headquarters in London, and also travelled to its offices elsewhere in Britain, and in Afghanistan.

The result is a striking collection of paintings and drawings that seduce and bewilder, while somehow still capturing the essence of the agency and the lives of those who work there.

What is most surprising about the images—at least when first seen—are their seeming ordinariness. There is a woman in a pub, a man walking a dog, a busy street. The painting Hart Dyke says was most popular with MI6 members depicts a hotel room with two chairs facing a small table, pulled back slightly as if arranged for a meeting. A man stands discreetly looking out the window, watching, waiting. The tension is implied rather than stated. The scenes depicted in many of the paintings could be sinister, or innocent and mundane. The audience is never really sure. “That’s the world they’re in—a very ambiguous world. I was trying to get a sense of what it might be like. You’ve got all this information coming in. A lot of it could be bogus, or very important. And you never quite know,” Hart Dyke said in an interview. “Some of the paintings are very ambiguous, and some are very straight. But sometimes the straight ones are not so straight. So you end up questioning a lot of the images.”

There are layers of meaning in many of the paintings, some more hidden than others. The colour green features throughout. This is a nod to the fact that the MI6 chief always writes in green ink. Today his emails are the same colour. Other paintings will be a mystery to anyone outside the spy agency. Hart Dyke’s favourite is of a rubber duck. “It’s everything you don’t expect to see. You question, why is that associated with MI6? It could be something that might have some significance. But that’s as far as I can go.”

There is a painting of a small, sleek-looking dog. Circles, including one that is green, hover around it. “It has a hidden kind of meaning to it. But again, it leaves you dumbfounded if you don’t know exactly what it means. But as an officer in that world, you’re often presented with situations in which you can’t understand what’s going on. So it’s good to have a few paintings like that that leave you slightly dumbfounded and wondering what on earth is that about?”

Hart Dyke’s style lends itself well to his subject matter. He describes himself as impressionistic and says the paint in his art is as important to him as the actual images he’s creating. Moods and emotions tend to dominate over finely drawn details.

He gave some of the paintings to the spy agency. The rest have been sold privately. Hart Dyke says he still finds himself looking twice at apparently ordinary scenes and wondering if there is something deeper happening. “You become very perceptive to everyday life. And I’m sure that’s what life must be like if you’re living in that world. You’re looking for that little telltale sign that things are not quite as they should be.”