Tancred Borenius

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Tancred Borenius
Tancred Borenius.
Born (1885-07-14)July 14, 1885
Vyborg, Grand Duchy of Finland
Died September 2, 1948(1948-09-02) (aged 63)
Coombe Bisset, England[1]
Alma mater University of Helsinki
Occupation Art historian, Diplomat
Spouse(s) Anne-Marie Runeberg
Children Peter Borenius
Parent(s) Carl Borenius & Olga Borenius

Carl Tancred Borenius (July 14, 1885, Vyborg – September 2, 1948, Coombe Bisset) was a Finnish art historian working in England, who became the first professor of the history of art at University College London. He was a prolific author and recognised as one of the world's leading experts on Italian art of the early Renaissance.

Borenius also served as a diplomat liaising between Finland and Britain. It has been claimed that during World War II Borenius worked as a spy for the British government and was instrumental in enticing Rudolf Hess to fly to Britain in 1941.


Borenius was the son of Finnish businessman and politician Carl Borenius. He studied at Helsinki and in Italy. He received his Ph.D. from Helsinki University in 1909, after which he moved to London. His first book was a version of his doctoral dissertation, Painters of Vincenza (1909). He married Anne-Marie Runeberg, a granddaughter of the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg.

Borenius soon met Roger Fry, to whom he became close. Fry introduced him to the art circles in Britain, and he became associated with the Bloomsbury group. Borenius was appointed in 1914 as a lecturer at University College London after Fry left. In 1921, he prepared a catalogue of the Northwick Park collection. After Henry Tonks had established the Edwin Durning-Lawrence chair in art history at the university Borenius was appointed its first professor in 1922.[2] In 1933 he became director of the excavations of Clarendon Palace near Salisbury, where he continued to dig regularly until 1939.

Though initially a specialist on Italian art, Borenius became increasingly interested in the art of his adopted country. His opinion on art was highly valued, and he worked as a consultant at Sotheby's. He was also an advisor to the Earl of Harewood's art collection.

He helped to found the art magazine Apollo in 1925, and became one of its most active contributors. He was also actively involved with the Burlington Magazine, of which he became managing editor during World War II from 1940 to 1945.

He wrote numerous books on art, including English Primitives (1924), The Iconography of St. Thomas of Canterbury (1929), Florentine Frescoes (1930), English Painting in the XVIIIth Century (1938) and Rembrandt: Selected Paintings (1942).


When Finland became independent of Russia, he acted as secretary of the diplomatic mission (1918) and as representative of Finland in London from 1919. In World War II this role became important as Britain initially sought to cultivate links to Finland, which had been attacked by Soviet Russia during the Winter War, as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact. When Germany invaded Russia, Finland became a de facto ally of the Nazis against the Russians. Finnish leader Field Marshal Mannerheim was careful to keep his distance from Hitler and maintain links to the Western Allies.[3] Borenius knew Mannerheim and during the Winter War he wrote a laudatory biography of the general.[4]

Borenius was made Secretary-General of the Polish Relief Fund in 1939, designed to send aid to Poland and assist Polish refugees in Britain. He had long cultivated links between Poland, Finland and Britain, having been vice-president of the Anglo-Polish society before the war. The anti-Nazi journal Free Europe referred to him as "a living symbol of Polish-Finnish collaboration".[5]

Hess claims[edit]

The writer John Harris asserts that Borenius was sent by the British (MI6) to Geneva in January 1941. The perilous journey was via Bristol (Whitchurch) to Lisbon (Sintra) by KLM DC3 and thereafter to Geneva via rail across Spain and Vichy France. The minute book of the Polish Relief Fund[6] records Borenius' absence from mid January to mid March 1941. The diary of Ulrich von Hassell also records the trip and Borenius' meeting with Carl Jacob Burckhardt, then a leader of the International Red Cross. Harris also interviewed Borenius' son, Peter who told him that Claude Dansey had supplied a cyanide pill, 'the size of a golf ball'. The diary entry makes it clear that Borenius was there to impart the knowledge that Britain was still ready to talk peace, 'though not for much longer'. The key question, Harris argues is on whose authority was Borenius sent? In the original German diaries Von Hassell states that Borenius was sent by English 'stellen' and this is the key - who were the English 'stellen'? MI6, Royalty or was it merely a clever ruse? Throughout the 1930s Borenius's Royal connections had flourished. He was art advisor to the Lascelles family and had accompanied Queen Mary to Yorkshire when visiting her daughter Mary.

Notwithstanding that question, Burckhardt clearly acted on the information and by 10 March at the latest, Albrecht Haushofer, Rudolf Hess's intermediary was aware of the meeting and what was discussed. It was on the pretext of a Haushofer / Burckhardt meeting that Albrecht travelled to Geneva on 28 April 1941. A fortnight later Hess flew to Scotland.[7]

Historian Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin at War disputed the claims, stating that "MI6 would have little to gain from luring Hess to Britain. Although nominally important, he was actually a peripheral figure by 1941.(Harris disagrees, making the point that Hess was essentially Party chairman, responsible for party organisation and integration of the captured territories into the Reich.) The most likely theory is that he came over of his own volition."[8]


Borenius was admitted into St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton in 1946 and transferred to Laverstock House, near Salisbury, where he died in September 1948. Both hospitals specialised in the treatment of mental disorders.


  1. ^ Borenius, Tancred . Biografiskt lexikon för Finland.
  2. ^ University College, History of Art department.
  3. ^ Vehviläinen, Olli (2002), Finland in the Second World War: Between Germany and Russia, New York: Palgrave.
  4. ^ J. E. O. Screen, Mannerheim: the years of preparation, C. Hurst & Co, 2001, p.4-5.
  5. ^ Free Europe: Central and East European Affairs, Volume 1, 1939, p.48.
  6. ^ London Metropolitan Archive
  7. ^ Rudolf Hess: Treachery and Deception - Jema May 2016
  8. ^ "Rudolf Hess 'was lured to Britain by MI6 plot", Daily Telegraph, 26th Oct, 2010.

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