Artist takes brush to the hush-hush as he spies the inner workings of MI6

AS an organisation shrouded in secrecy, it might seem odd for MI6 to appoint an artist to depict its mysterious work.

But this was the unusual assignment handed to James Hart Dyke, who was invited to record daily life at the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in a series of paintings and sketches.

It was not a mission James Bond ever attempted, but the artist had to take the same cloak and dagger approach to his job as the fictional spy did in Ian Fleming’s novels.

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The project saw him working closely with MI6 for a year, both in the UK and abroad, although his access to the service was, unsurprisingly, carefully controlled.

With the need for discretion paramount, the paintings do not identify actual officers, agents, operations, or events.

But the artwork, commissioned for the service’s centenary celebrations and going on display to the public in London’s West End today, sheds a glimmer of light on the world of spying – albeit through impressionistic brushstrokes and veiled meanings.

Some of the settings are familiar enough: the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall in London, rendered in oil on canvas, or the blue-grey watercolour of the turnstile barring all but a privileged few from the building. But in other paintings, the meaning is more oblique.

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Doughnut on Stripes depicts just that – a still life of the cake on a pink and white tablecloth – a jokey reference to the nickname given to the ring-shaped GCHQ.

And there are some references only staff at MI6 will cotton on to.

Dog in the Round and Toy Duck, for example, appear baffling to an outsider.

For Hart Dyke, who has previously travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq while embedded with the Grenadier Guards, being chosen by former SIS boss Sir John Scarlett to produce the works for A Year With MI6 was a dream come true.

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He said: “It’s pretty bizarre. At first I didn’t take it seriously.”

But, finally convinced it was for real, he signed the Official Secrets Act and took on the unique commission, keeping it hidden from everyone but his wife and parents. “It’s difficult as an artist not being able to tell anyone what you’re doing,” he said. “When people asked I said I was doing some military stuff. People had said I was a spy for years because I kept disappearing off, so now I can have the last laugh.”

The 40 oil paintings, plus a number of sketches and studies, are on exhibition at Mount Street Galleries in Mayfair until February 26.