LONDON – Spies complain that intelligence is often sketchy — and here's the proof.
Artist James Hart Dyke on Monday unveiled a series of paintings and drawings he created during a year embedded with Britain's MI6 intelligence agency — an uncharacteristic act of openness for the secretive organization.
Hart Dyke, who has accompanied Prince Charles on royal tours and served as a war artist in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent 12 months on Her Majesty's secret sketching service, armed with paintbrush and pencils and granted access to the overseas intelligence agency's sites and staff.
"I think some of them didn't believe I was an artist," Hart Dyke said, mixing with curators and spies at a London art gallery where the images are on show. "They thought maybe head office had sent me to check what they were doing."
The project was sanctioned to mark the service's centenary in 2009 — a milestone MI6 has used to carefully raise its public profile and dispel some of the myths about life as a spy.
The agency, whose existence was only officially acknowledged in the 1990s, has slowly been raising its public profile. It now has a website and advertises for staff in newspapers and on public transport.
Last year, historian Keith Jeffery published an official history of the agency's first 40 years, which revealed stories of 007-style derring-do, alongside details of bureaucracy, boredom and budget constraints.
Retired spy chief John Scarlett, who as head of MI6 commissioned the art project, said its goal was to capture "the nature, the spirit of the service and its people — within the parameters of secrecy."
Hart Dyke was granted access to MI6 headquarters in London and the agency's sites around the world — on condition that he tell no one but his immediate family what he was working on. He was licensed to give a spy's-eye view of life at MI6, on condition his pictures didn't reveal too much.
He said he went in with boyish enthusiasm — "like a boy dreams of being an astronaut, I dreamed of doing this" — but tried to leave preconceived ideas at the door.
The 40 oil paintings and numerous pencil, charcoal and watercolor sketches — the latter, fittingly, in shades of gray — include depictions of the futuristic MI6 Building, views of London's River Thames from inside MI6, street scenes of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and images of agents in offices, meeting rooms and hotel bars.
The works are on display and for sale at the Mount Street Galleries in London from Tuesday to Feb. 27, with prices ranging from 950 pounds to 25,000 pounds ($1,500 to $40,000).
They are, unsurprisingly, enigmatic. Not many artists' watercolors have been security screened, and exhibitions rarely come with the disclaimer "any resemblance to any living person is unintentional and accidental."
In the pictures, faces of figures are often obscured or turned way, and seemingly mundane scenes take on mysterious overtones. One large canvas of a crowded rain-slicked street makes the viewer question 'what is really going on?' In another, a woman looks around, startled — is she being followed? A man walks a dog, perhaps on his way to an assignation.
Some have hidden meanings: A large picture of a glazed doughnut evokes the ring-shaped headquarters of GCHQ, Britain's electronic spy agency; a fish on a plate is titled "Not a Red Herring" — a nod to the many false leads that waylay secret agents. Elsewhere, a bright and oddly unnerving yellow rubber duck is accompanied by green dots intended to suggest the title sequence of a James Bond film.
"It's an everyday object, with a touch of the surreal," Hart Dyke said. "I hope it can work on those two planes."
It certainly seems to work for its most critical audience — the spies themselves.
Scarlett said he was delighted with the show, and identified particularly strongly with one image — a man standing at a window in an empty hotel room.
"I recognize that situation completely," he said. "I've been in that situation many times. You're waiting, it's a boring situation, but you're waiting for something exciting and exceptional to happen.
"This is an intriguing profession," he said. "The work is very interesting and exciting, but in a funny way, mixed up with everyday life."
David Stringer in London contributed to this report.