The Duke: The real story of Kempton Bunton and the theft of Goya’s Wellington portrait
Jonathan Wright uncovers the true story behind the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington in new comedy movie The Duke, and how the theft of the painting became a family secret…
Only one painting has ever been stolen from the National Gallery in London. In August 1961, Francisco Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington’, which had been purchased for the nation for the then-huge fee of £140,000 just 19 days earlier, was found to be missing.
It would be four years before the Iron Duke was recovered. In the meantime, a replica appears in the background of the first James Bond film, Dr No – where is appears as one of the spoils in the villain’s lair.
But was individual behind the theft a dastardly criminal mastermind? Not at all, as a new comedy-drama, The Duke, makes clear.
The Duke and Kempton Bunton – how are they connected?
This is a story centred on one Kempton Bunton (1904–76), played by Jim Broadbent, an eccentric autodidact and aspiring writer whose only other claim to fame was waging a long-running campaign against the elderly and the poor having to pay for a TV licence, even going to jail over his own refusal to pay.
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So what really happened? One reason we now know so much about what occurred is because of research by Kempton’s grandson, Christopher Bunton. It was Christopher who approached The Duke’s producer, Nicky Bentham, to tell her about a story that even now defies belief.
Without giving too much away, Kempton ended up being tried for the theft of the painting. While he was represented by the celebrated QC Jeremy Hutchinson, who had previously worked on the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case, the film shows how Kempton himself was the star of court proceedings, emerging as a battered fabulist and idealist committed to social justice.
To judge by The Duke, this combination often made Kempton difficult to live with, as we see through the eyes of his long-suffering wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren).
Family stories sometimes take a while to be handed down, how did you first find out about your grandfather Kempton’s involvement in the theft of ‘Portrait of the Duke Of Wellington’?
I was 14 years old and I was on an overnight ferry trip from North Shields to Bergen. You’re on the ferry for a very long time and there’s not much else to do but sit in the bar.
I’m underage – so I’m on the sodas – but my dad [John Bunton, ‘Jackie’ in the film] likes his beer. He’d had a few drinks, and then he let the story slip and initially I couldn’t believe it, except he’s not the type of person to joke around like that.
I didn’t really understand the sheer scale of it until a few years later, when I started doing my own research. At 14, the most impressive thing for me was the James Bond reference [the painting’s theft is referenced in the first 007 film, Dr. No [released in 1962] because I was a big Bond fan. But it wasn’t something that was discussed in the family, that was the one time.
When did you begin researching the story more seriously?
It really wasn’t until 2011. I’d moved to America at this point [where Bunton works in the computing industry], I was a little bit homesick, and I was tracking the story online – and there was a lot in 2011 online, because it was the 50th anniversary of the heist.
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I had inside information, so I was keeping track and reading all of the information that was out there. I found a lot of it was accurate, some of it was just speculation and some of it, I felt, was a little unfair to my grandfather.
My dad passed down to me all of Kempton’s plays that he’d never managed to get published. Kempton also wrote memoirs which pretty much documented from when he was a child all the way through his life. I felt like I got to know Kempton by reading his memoirs and his plays, and I got more interested in the story of the theft.
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Without giving too much away and before we talk a little about Kempton, the part your father plays in this story is important. What’s he like?
He’s 81 and he still lives in Newcastle. He’s a unique character. He’s an out-of-the-box thinker and a very pragmatic character. He was born in 1940 and he grew up in abject poverty. He was one of seven kids in Newcastle. Kempton was in and out of work, and they didn’t have two pennies to rub together.
In addition to that, the family experienced a lot of tragedy and grief [including the early death of Kempton’s daughter, Marian, in a cycling accident]. I think those factors really influenced their psyches and their decision-making. I’m pleased we’ve managed to incorporate that in the film itself.
It’s a story underpinned by tragedy, but The Duke is a very funny film, rooted in this idea that it wasn’t professional criminals who stole the painting.
The heist itself in the film is skipped over really, although it was a lot more complicated than it’s made out to be.
It’s unlike any heist film you’ve ever seen, a quintessentially British story. But every scene is rooted in truth, even scenes that might make people in the audience think, “Oh, that’s a bit far-fetched; that didn’t happen.”
There’s one scene in a bakery, for example, when Kempton takes a stand against racism. That really happened, in his memoirs. I’m sure he didn’t quote Gandhi as he does in the film, but he did take a stand. And the trial scenes are largely taken from court transcripts.
Was there a sense of embarrassment among people in authority that helps explain why it took so long for a fuller story to come out?
The theft was a major embarrassment. Later, because of an injunction, my dad couldn’t tell his story. I’ve actually got The Daily Mirror front page from the day after the painting was taken. It was big news, but it’s amazing how they managed to sweep it under the carpet.
Is there any chance you could get your grandad’s writing published? The memoirs in particular sound really interesting.
He was uneducated. He left school when he was 12 years old to work behind his mam’s bar because he was tall for his age. He was quite happy not to have to go to school, but I do think he had a little bit of talent and I’ve got quite a few of his writings.
I’m going to keep all of these and maybe potentially look into doing something in the future. I’m not sure how true this is, but apparently he did have two offers for publishing deals.
The Duke: where to watch
The Duke was released in cinemas on 25 February 2022.
The Duke trailer
What was Kempton Bunton like?
Jonathan Wright caught up with Kempton’s grandson Christopher Bunton to talk about uncovering the true story behind one of the most famous art thefts of the 1960s.
The Duke real history – is it a true story?
** Major spoilers for The Duke follow**
It is absolutely true that The Duke is based on a true story. The painting was stolen in 1961, less than three weeks after being acquired by the National Gallery. But there’s a shocking twist to the tale: the true culprit wasn’t Kempton – it was his son, John.
It was John who crept into the National Gallery in 1961 and pinched the painting – and then confessed all to his father, Kempton, when the panic set it. Kempton raced to London from his native Newcastle. It was two weeks later than Kempton returned by train to Newcastle with the world-famous painting. It would have a new home there for the next four years: boarded up in the back of a bedroom cupboard.
When Kempton began sending ransom notes for the painting’s safe return – its price being £140,000 to charity – Scotland Yard thought them to be the work of an organised criminal syndicate.
Eventually, The Daily Mirror offered a deal: once the painting was returned, the paper would put it on display to raise £30,000 for charitable causes.
Kempton took the painting to the left luggage facility at Birmingham train station, abandoning it with a tag for the newspaper. But The Daily Mirror failed to adhere to its part in the deal, prompting Kempton, in July 1965, to walk into Scotland Yard and confess to the crime. His handwriting convinced the police that they were dealing with the same person who had sent the ransom notes. In the ensuing trial, he was sentenced to just three months in prison: not for the theft of the painting itself, but the frame, which was never recovered.
It was only fours years later, when John was pulled over while driving a stolen vehicle, that the son confessed to his father’s crime. When the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that it was not in the public interest to reopen the case, it was on the condition that neither John nor Kempton reveal the truth.
It was only in 2012 that the National Archives released the file on the Goya theft.
The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Goode, is in cinemas now. It was directed by the late Roger Michell, his final film
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