© UnknownJames Hart Dyke
The mysterious oil painting entitled Waiting in the Hotel Room sold for a relatively modest $28,200 last week on the opening night of an exhibition in the upscale Mayfair district of London. But for all the painting's ordinariness - a man in a dark suit viewed from behind as he looks out through the net curtains of a plush room, his hands clasped and his head slightly tilted - it attracted a lot of attention.

The artist, James Hart Dyke, has drawn favourable reviews for his past work, mainly his landscapes. But what put Hart Dyke in Britain's headlines was that the dozens of paintings and watercolours on display at the Mount Street Galleries offered unprecedented glimpses into the world of the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as SIS or MI6, which has never before permitted an outsider to make a graphic record of its hidden world.

The man in the hotel room was a spy for MI6. For whom or what he was waiting, or where, is left for the viewer to guess, since Hart Dyke, a 43-year-old was sworn to secrecy under the Official Secrets Act before he was invited to spend a year following and sketching Britain's "spooks."

The artist's standard response to questions about the intrigue behind the paintings suggests he acquired something of the clandestine mind-set in his months inside Vauxhall Cross, the agency's headquarters in London, and on trips to MI6 stations in Afghanistan, Africa and eastern Europe. "I can't say," he said with a smile when asked what the man in the hotel room was doing. To that, he added, "Sorry, but I've become pretty good at saying 'I can't tell you that, it's secret.' "

Hart Dyke offers similar responses about other canvases, with titles that include Agent Giving Information to SIS Officer, showing two men in a hotel room poring over a map spread on a bed. Another canvas, titled Icebreaker, shows a stylish young woman with short-cropped hair sitting on a bar stool and a half-drunk martini before her, with a handsome young man two bar stools away. An catalog note explains, "An officer contemplates how she might strike up a conversation with her target."

One thing missing from the works, apart from the alluring woman, is any hint of suave James Bond. The world's sense of Britain's spies has been formed in Bond's image. But MI6 insiders have long said that the fictional life of 007 was a far cry from the gritty realities. It was to record those realities that Sir John Scarlett, then the MI6 chief, approved the approach to Hart Dyke as part of the centenary observances of "the service" in 2009.