The amazing life story of Tancred Borenius

The author of our Rembrandt classic spied for Britain, hung with the Bloomsbury Group, was an art advisor to earls, spoke nine languages fluently and, most importantly, may even have helped the allies win World War II
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Tancred Borenius, author of our Rembrandt book
Tancred Borenius, author of our Rembrandt book

You're probably aware that we're very excited about our forthcoming reissue series of three books originally published in the 1930s and 40s - a set of beautifully illustrated and painstakingly researched titles on Van Gogh, Raphael and Rembrandt.

Each book features the original text from the publication, as well as a new essay by a renowned contemporary scholar. The newer inclusions are wonderful and we'll be telling you about them shortly, but we've also been looking into the lives of the authors who turned in these great manuscripts to Phaidon’s co-founder Ludwig Goldscheider all those years ago. You can read about Wilhelm Uhde, our Van Gogh author, who was an early champion of Braque, Picasso, and naïve art, here.

Today, we're focussing on Tancred Borenius, the Finnish professor, entrepreneur, diplomat and author of our Rembrandt book (originally published in 1942) who socialised with the Bloomsbury Group; worked as a consultant at Sotheby's; spoke nine languages fluently; served as an art advisor to the Earl of Harewood as well as members of Oscar Wilde's family; was a leading expert on Italian art during the early Renaissance; and even have worked as a spy for the British government, helping the Allied Forces win World War II. Some going, we think you'll agree!

 

Tancred Borenius; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Edith Olivier, 1936
Tancred Borenius; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Edith Olivier, 1936

Son of a Finnish businessman and Member of Parliament, Borenius studied in Rome - at the Vatican libarary - and Berlin, before arriving in London in 1909. He married Anne-Marie Runeberg, the granddaughter of Finland's national poet Johan Ludwig Runeberg, and socialised with the Bloomsbury Group, Britain's preeminent artistic and intellectual set. The Bloomsbury's set's Roger Fry (the artist and art historian who coined the term Post-Impressionism) introduced Borenius to the group, and he soon began to mix with the likes of the novelist Virginia Woolf and society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. In 1914, Borenius took on Fry’s recently vacated position of art lecturer at University College, London.

The October Revolution also drove Borenius into public service. In 1918 Finland gained its independence from the Russian Empire, and Borenius took on diplomatic duties, serving as his country’s official representative in London.

Nonetheless he remained a key figure within art circles, becoming the first professor of the history of art at University College London in 1922; co-founding British art magazine Apollo (still going today), and in 1933; taking on the position of director of excavations at the medieval ruin Clarendon Palace in Wiltshire. He wrote our Rembrandt book in 1942, while also serving as managing editor on the British fine and decorative arts title, the Burlington Magazine. However, a year earlier he may have had a hand in a far more consequential affair.

 

Virginia Woolf as photographed by Lady Morell 1926
Virginia Woolf as photographed by Lady Morell 1926

In 2006, on his deathbed, Tancred's son Peter told a leading historian that Borenius had lured the high-ranking Nazi official Rudolf Hess to Britain to facilitate an Anglo-Nazi alliance. According to the historian, John Harris, Borenius convinced Hitler’s second-in-command to embark on a solo flight from Germany to Scotland in 1941, in the false hope of securing a peace deal with western powers, prior to an assault on Russia.

Harris points to a trip Borenius made to Geneva in 1941. There, the historian claims, Borenius, acting on behalf of the British intelligence services, passed on an invitation to Hess to meet the British Royal Family, to create an alliance and remove Winston Churchill from power.

However, the invitation was a trap. According to Harris “the incredible plot that led to Hess’s capture bought Britain some time from a planned German invasion and ultimately was a turning point in defeating Hitler and winning the war. Without Tancred’s involvement, there can be little doubt that Britain, and much of Europe would be speaking German today.”

 

The cover of our new Rembrandt book
The cover of our new Rembrandt book

Though a rival historian has questioned these claims, no one can be in any doubt that Hess ended his days in Spandau Prison, while Borenius settled in Britain, and after a long illness, passed away in Salisbury in 1948 at the age of 63, having left his mark on the art world, and with it, the wider world.

You can find his wonderful Rembrandt book here. We’ll be bringing you more stories about these important reissues in the coming weeks, including some sneak previews of the new, supplementary texts in each. And remember, these titles will be in high demand and they are a limited edition so you may want to pre-order now.

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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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