Not a spy, but left out in the cold

In the January 25 2019 edition of the TLS, under the heading "Cruel Britannia", Robert Waterhouse sets out the story of the Hungarian-born artist George Buday who had his 1950 application for British citizenship rejected over false allegations of Communist sympathies. Robert’s new book THEIR SAFE HAVEN describes how 14 artists who arrived in Britain before the Second World War made their way, and their lives, in their adopted nation. In the face of many challenges they settled, contributing to the rich mix of émigré art during and after the war. They all, apart from Buday, were granted British citizenship. Ironically, Buday was the greatest patriot of the 14, both for Britain and for the Hungary he had felt impelled to leave in 1937. His story is a heart-breaker. The case against Buday rested on claims by MI5 that he had stayed too long as founder-director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in London during 1948 and 1949 as the Cold War intensified, and that he had personally followed the dictates of Moscow.

However, secret Home Office files in the National Archives opened under a Freedom of Information request suggest that, by pointing the finger at Buday, the M15 operative Dick White - the man who let Kim Philby slip through his fingers - was shielding another Hungarian, Andrew Revai, a double agent who had been turned by none other than Guy Burgess. Buday had made striking contributions to the British war effort both as an artist, a BBC broadcaster and as part of a Foreign Office unit countering Nazi propaganda. He had been a founder in 1941 of the Association of Free Hungarians in Great Britain - combining patriotism for his native country with allegiance to the British cause. But when Russian tanks crushed the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, Buday suffered a nervous breakdown, needing residential care for the remainder of his long life. Articles on this site track Buday’s life in London from when he arrived in 1937 until his applications for citizenship were refused. They show a Home Office in the thrall of M15 despite Buday having the support of top politicians. His treatment remains a slur on Britain’s reputation for fairness. He was never accorded an apology, not even after his death at a Croydon psychiatric hospital in 1990.


Click images to expand

It’s something of a miracle that George Buday’s naturalisation file, HO 405/3680, survives in the National Archives at Kew. Only about 40 per cent of files relating to nationality and naturalisation of émigrés in the post-war period have been retained. The file, closed for 100 years from 1986 because it “contains sensitive personal information which would substantially distress or endanger a living person or his or her descendants” was opened by a Freedom of Information request in 2016. The file shows that it was Buday and nobody else who was substantially distressed by the attitudes of the Home Office, acting on information received from MI5. In his letter dated October 16 1950 (above) to W.S.Murrie, Deputy Under-Secretary at the Home Office, D.G.White, who as Sir Dick White was to become head both of MI5 and MI6, stated that Buday was “regarded by the Hungarian Legation as a Hungarian Government Official subject to orders from Budapest” in his position as Director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute. This was a blatant lie to protect a former colleague of Buday, Andrew Revai, who had become a double-agent working for London and Moscow. He’d been turned by Guy Burgess in 1942. As discussed here, George Buday, denied British citizenship, had a nervous breakdown when the Hungarian Uprising was quashed in October 1956, spending the remainder of his life in a Croydon psychiatric hospital. The pathetic final page of Buday’s Home Office file, spelt out at the end of the article on Buday and M15, is also shown above, as is the file cover and the letter from Malcolm Osborne, Buday’s principal referee for his 1950 citizenship application.

How MI5 innuendo, by denying him citizenship, provoked Buday’s nervous breakdown

Buday’s naturalisation file in the National Archives reveals that Sir Dick White, the MI5 operative who let Philby slip through the spy net, kyboshed Buday’s life while endorsing the Hungarian double-agent Andrew Revai

November 1947. George Buday, internationally known as a book illustrator and, aged 40, at the height of his powers, made a first visit to Budapest in ten years. During the five-week stay his old friend and colleague, the writer and academic Gyula Ortutay, invited him to be director of the proposed Hungarian Cultural Institute in London. Ortutay, then Minister of Education, represented the liberal wing of a coalition government already under pressure from hardline Communists. The two had published books together in 1930s Szeged. Buday had been active in the London Hungarian community since May 1941 when, along with the diplomat Anthony Zsilinsky and the journalist and publisher Andrew Revai, he signed a letter to The Times disassociating himself from the actions of the Horthy regime in attacking Yugoslavia. They were stripped of Hungarian nationality as a result, and later Zsilinsky committed suicide. Revai and Buday went on to found the Association of Free Hungarians in Britain, urging their fellows to support the Allied war effort in any way available. The patriotism Buday showed to what he believed to be the true spirit of his native country was paralleled by three  graphic front page images published by the Times Literary Supplement in 1941. After the war (he had served in the Foreign Office’s Foreign Internal Defence department at Woburn Park between 1942-45) he resumed his highly successful career, sharing one of the Rossetti studios in Flood Street, Chelsea, with his great friend, the medallist Paul Vincze. He should have left it at that. For, as his citizenship file at the National Archives, Kew, reveals, the denizens of Box 500, Parliament Street, SW1 – otherwise known as MI5 – found it convenient to imply he had Communist sympathies. The file, originally classified as SECRET and closed until 2086, has been opened under a Freedom of Information Act request. It shows, conclusively, that Buday was never granted citizenship.

Although he seems to have been allowed to carry on life in Chelsea as before, Buday’s feeling of rejection ran deep. When the October 1956 Hungarian uprising was quashed by Soviet tanks, Buday suffered a nervous breakdown. He was admitted to a NHS psychiatric institution at Coulsdon, near Croydon, where he died some 34 years later in 1990. Happily, he was encouraged to carry on working and was offered a studio in the grounds. So, just what did MI5 allege? In October 1950 the MI5 operative D.G.White wrote to his counterpart at the Home Office, W.S.Murrie: “We referred to his position as Director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute. We know from a delicate and wholly reliable source that while in this post he was regarded by the Hungarian legation as a Hungarian Government official subject to orders from Budapest.” The crunch phrase is “delicate and wholly reliable source”. He was never named, but the source was almost certainly none other than Andrew Revai, Buday’s former colleague at the Association of Free Hungarians. Revai, it transpires, was a double-agent working both for M15 and the Russian secret services, where he had the codename TAFFY (or TOFFY). He was, according to the Russian source Vasili Mitrokhin, who defected to the UK in 1992, turned by his former lover, Guy Burgess in November 1942 – and appears consistently in accounts of the Burgess/Maclean/Philby/Blunt spy web. What makes Buday’s treatment shocking is that Dick White knew Revai’s role well but – when communicating with the Home Office – he insisted on pairing the two. He wrote, in his same note to Murrie, “Although I think BUDAY was identified more closely and for a longer period with the Communist regime than REVAI, the two cases are undoubtedly similar and we cannot say that the former associations of either have implanted in them an enduring loyalty to communism.”  However, White concluded his note, referring to Buday: “We cannot have any real confidence in the permanence of his political loyalties.” By being less than truthful about Buday, White was taking the pressure off Revai, who he knew was a spy. As a further injustice, Revai was granted British citizenship in 1964.

Dick White, who had run the “double cross” system of turning Nazi spies during the Second World War, was the M15 operative who later failed to catch Philby after Burgess and Maclean defected to Russia. Over the years, Philby played cat-and-mouse with him, describing him condescendingly in his memoir My Silent War as a pleasant enough character without particular gifts. Hardly likely to trap the masterly Philby. White interrogated Philby in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean fiasco, but got nowhere. Philby described him as “ineffective” compared with the dangerously urbane William Skardon.

All the same, White became director-general of M15 in 1953 and was knighted in 1955. In 1956 he was put in charge of MI6 as well, holding the dual post until he retired in 1972. W.S.Murrie, Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, had chaired the Murrie Committee, convened in February 1949, which opined on perceived problems caused by coloured immigrants from the colonies and British protectorates. It was Murrie, too, who signed citizenship certificates. But, in the way things are done in Westminster and Whitehall, it was the junior Home Office minister, Geoffrey de Freitas, who signed the papers denying Buday citizenship. No evidence was ever brought against Buday. The fact that he was allowed to continue his daily existence as a National Health Service patient without citizenship and effectively stateless speaks for itself. Entries in his file Home Office become sparser and sparser. Its desolate final page (see illustration) reads, in the scribbled hands of various agents:

“General registry1.To see the obs of Box 500 d/d 20/1/65 within and to note that the grading of this file should remain as SECRET2.B.F. 1.1.70 (to review classification)Papers and copy OPR 3011/62 removed from cover (attached) and cover destroyed 17/8/76Classification reviewed on 10.6.86.Buday may still be alive” He was. For another four years. Not that the MI5 or the Home Office knew or cared.

Dec 22 1937

December 22, 1937

Arrives on a Hungarian travelling scholarship


January 1, 1938

At the British Museum researching/writing a book on historical connections between Hungary, England and Scotland while still employed by Szeged University


June 1, 1938

Elected ARE (Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers)


January 1, 1939

Engravings (ten in all) hung at Royal Academy annual exhibitions


September 1, 1939

Volunteers for war work

Sept 8 and 13 1939

September 8, 1939

Interview, translation and voice tests at BBC. Put on waiting list

December 1940

December 1, 1940

Christmas card featuring Jeanne d’Angleterre and a patriotic prayer for Britain

April 5 1941

April 5, 1941

First of three patriotic front covers for the Times Literary Supplement

May 1941

May 1, 1941

Begins work as translator/announcer with Hungarian BBC service

May 2 1941

May 2, 1941

Resigns from post at Szeged University

May 19 1941

May 19, 1941

Joint letter published in The Times


June 1, 1941

Elected to the Art Workers’ Guild


August 1, 1941

Starts idea of Association of Free Hungarians with Zsilinsky and Revai. Zsilinsky becomes first president, Buday first Hon.Secy

Oct 12 1941

October 12, 1941

Stripped of Hungarian citizenship (along with Revai and Zsilinsky and Rustem Vambery) for “acts injurious to the state” according to the New York Times


November 1, 1941

“Self-portrait in the Studio, 1941” oil, now in the Imperial War Museum collection

August 1942 – January 1945

August 1, 1942

Employed by the Foreign Office’s Political Intelligence Department. Never disclosed what that work was. (His testimonial from the Foreign Office was deemed satisfactory by Special Branch investigators)


August 1, 1943

Lease acquired at 22 Manchester Square, W1, for the Association of Free Hungarians and the Pro Libertate Friends of Free Hungary (British sister organisation)

Spring 1945 on

April 1, 1945

Based at Rossetti Studios, Chelsea, working on private commissions. Shares studio with fellow Hungarian Paul Vincze

May 10 1946

May 10, 1946

Hungarian citizenship restored

November 12 1947

November 12, 1947

Leaves for Hungary at the invitation of the non-Communist Minister of Culture, Gyula Ortutay. Offered Minister of Education

December 18 1947

December 18, 1947

Returns to London

April 1948

April 1, 1948

Appointed director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in London

March 3 1949

March 3, 1949

Passport de Service issued in Budapest valid six for months

March 4 1949

March 4, 1949

To Budapest, summoned for meeting of cultural institute directors

March 12 1949

March 12, 1949

Lands back at Northolt Airport conditionally “not to enter any employment paid or unpaid without the consent of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, and not to remain in the United Kingdom later than such date as may be specified by the Secretary of State”

September 11 1949

September 11, 1949

Passport de Service issued in Budapest

September 25 1949

September 25, 1949

Resigns as director, Hungarian Cultural Institute

Declines Hungarian authorities’ request to visit Budapest. Passport rescinded

March 1950

March 1, 1950

Applies for British citizenship

November 1950

November 1, 1950

Application for British citizenship refused


January 1, 1952

Applies again


August 1, 1952

Application refused again


October 23, 1956

Budapest Uprising. Nervous breakdown. Voluntary patient at Netherne Hospital, Coulsdon, for the rest of his life

Buday’s naturalisation referees were an Attlee Government junior minister, a former Liberal MP, the president of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers, and the Keeper of the Print Department at the British Museum.

When making his application for British naturalisation in March 1950 George Buday, as he was required to do, enlisted the help of four British-born acquaintances. His citizenship file in the National Archives shows the strength and seriousness of his bid. Thomas Horabin, a businessman, former Liberal MP for Cornwall North and Liberal whip in the 1945 Parliament, who had known Buday for 12 years, stated: “Mr Buday is probably the leading woodcut artist of the world. Politically he stands where the Labour Party stands, and his loyalty to the way of life followed in this country has always been crystal clear in the many discussions we have had together over the period I have known him.” D.R.Hardman, Labour MP for Darlington 1945-51 and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education in the Attlee Government (his post at the time of writing) stated: “I got to know Mr Buday through our mutual interest in international art education, my responsibility being very largely connected with UNESCO. Socially we have maintained our friendship and met a great many times. He is a thoroughly reliable person with a great admiration for England.” Malcolm Osborne RA, President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers, said: “I met George Buday during his visit to London in 1938 and was introduced to him by Mr Campbell Dodgson, the late Keeper of the Print Department of the British Museum. He came from Budapest to study engraving in England. He is a very accomplished wood engraver and book illustrator. In 1939 he was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and has exhibited regularly at their exhibitions and at the Royal Academy. I am in regular contact with him socially and in matters connected with his profession. I believe he would be thoroughly trustworthy and loyal to this country.” Arthur Hind, Campbell Dodgson’s successor at the British Museum and Buday’s fourth referee, wrote in much the same way. There is no record of their statements being challenged. They were simply ignored.

Hon Gentlemen, a ‘non-existent’ organisation, and the Hungaria Restaurant

Extracts from Hansard’s verbatim House of Commons reports during May 1950 of debates on the role of the Hungarian Club and the Hungarian Cultural Institute quash allegations of Communist influence

Major Tufton Beamish asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (on May 10 1950) “whether he is aware that the Hungarian Club at 33 Pembridge Square acts as the central organisation controlling Hungarian Communist propaganda in the country; and if he could now close it down as a reprisal for the Hungarian Government’s action regarding the British Council and for security reasons." Mr Ernest Davies “As I do not share the hon and gallant Member’s opinion of the Hungarian Club I can see no justification for action being taken to close it down. As I informed the hon and gallant Member on May 8, there has been retaliation for the action taken by the Hungarian Government against the British Council.” Major Beamish “Is the Under-Secretary aware that he is completely wrong in saying that, and that the Hungarian Institute which he closed was a non-existent organisation, which is proved by the fact that not a single employee of that organisation went back to Hungary when the Government insisted on its being closed? Will he look at this again and try not to make the Government look more foolish than it really is?” Mr Davies “Since the hon and gallant Gentleman put this question to me on Monday this week I made inquiries about the activities that the Hungarian Institute was carrying on, and ascertained that it was carrying on activities which have now ceased.” Major Beamish “In that case, will the Under-Secretary say why not a single employee of the Institute has gone back, although the Government said that the employees should do so?” Mr Davies “Because it happened that there was one Hungarian employee and some British employees.” Sir H Williams “Is the hon. Gentleman sure he did not mix it up with the Hungaria Restaurant, in Haymarket?” This outwardly jovial exchange refers to others on April 19 and May 8 1950, and was followed by one on May 17. Beamish, an ebullient Tory Knight of the Shires, smelt a Communist rat at the Hungarian Club which the Attlee Government’s Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Ernest Davies, would have nothing of. Another Tory grandee, Sir Herbert Williams, signed off the spat in style. What this and the other related Hansard reports confirm, however, is that George Buday was the only Hungarian employee at the Hungarian Cultural Institute, and that Hungary was the only Eastern European country to close down British Council operations, which it did by withdrawing residence permits for the six British employees in Budapest. However, in the debate of May 17, Kenneth Younger, Minister of State at the Foreign Office who – since the illness of Ernest Bevin had become Acting Foreign Secretary - spoke up for the Hungarian Cultural Institute. When asked by Beamish just what was the work of the institute he replied: Mr Younger “The work of the Hungarian Cultural Institute, which has now ceased to operate, included lecture meetings, displays of books and newspapers, readings of Hungarian poetry and on one occasion a Hungarian art exhibition.” So the Acting Foreign Secretary gave his blessing to an organisation which, just a few months later, the junior Home Office minister, Geoffrey de Freitas, tacitly condemned when he denied Buday’s application for British citizenship. Ironically, Buday had based his model for the institute on the British Council.