By Mike Edwards-Smith,
Secret meetings, clandestine phone calls and cloak-and-dagger operations. Alex gets to the bare bones of undercover agents. All part of the world of espionage, but also a factor in how artist Alex de Cadenet put together his latest exhibition.
With the project titled British Spies, perhaps he should have realised his efforts would be anything but straightforward. "It took me two and a half years to put the exhibition together," explained Alex. "It was far harder and more challenging than I expected."
The portraits include former MI5 Chief Dame Stella Rimington, another agent who's still on a terrorist hit list, and even a British KGB operative who was trained in the arts of seduction!"I don't think I'm alone in being fascinated by spies,"said Alex.
"It's not jusl the secretive, mysterious nature of their work, but also what they represenl to our society. "I regard them as actors who play a much more dangerous game, as they're acting for real, and their ability to be convincing could ensure both their and our very survival."
Not only did Alex have to persuade the naturally-reclusive participants to come into the open, but he also had to convince them that his idea to portray them in both head-on shots and as X-rays wasn't a hoax.
"They could quite easily have assumed that I was bit of a nutter," explained the 29-year-old artist.
In British Spies, at London's Courtauld Institute of Art, the passport-type shots are placed next to the X-rays, which Alex has infused with colour.
"I think this offers a more complete presentation of the subjects' identity, giving not only an interior view -who they really are inside -but also an exterior appearance -who they appear to be on the surface."
It's perhaps fitting that the show is at the Courtauld, because its ex-long-serving director was Sir Anthony Blunt who, in 1979, was exposed as a Soviet spy.
Alex explained that, at times, it was a frustrating experience, saying, "I must have written hundreds of letters and, almost every day, I thought of packing up the project. He had plenty of refusals and was also thwarted by people who, at first, agreed to take part, but then had second thoughts. Eventually, the artist ended up with six willing participants, including two women - Dame Stella and Pauline Neville - former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
There's the bespectacled Oleg Gordievsky, the ex-KGB Intelligence Officer and MI6 agent, and Richard Tomlinson, who, when working for MI6, smuggled nuclear secrets out of the new Russia and ran an undercover operation in besieged Sarajevo.
Only one of the subjects doesn't reveal his identity -and is portrayed clad in a balaclava. This is Kevin Fulton, who worked in Northern Ireland, and remains wanted by a terrorist organisation.
"I was extremely grateful Kevin agreed to be involved, said Alex. "He's living under an assumed name, and can't have his features displayed in public."
Alex described John Symonds, the sixth "model", as the person closest to the popular image of James Bond. Symonds was a policeman recruited by the KGB, but he never worked against British interests. "He was dubbed the "Romeo Spy", because his missions usually involved extracting secrets from women," Alex explained. "He was actually coached in how to charm the opposite sex, and to ask the right questions to obtain sensitive information . "He was even given advice on lovemaking! "So when I met him, I asked him to pas'! on some tips!" Alex laughed.
"But what's most remarkable about Symonds is that he looks so unremarkable!"
It's rumoured there are plans to turn Symonds' adventures into a film.
After being in the world of espionage, it's perhaps no surprise Alex has dubbed his next project "top secret".