The two guards of the National Gallery in London went about their evening rounds as usual. Everything seemed fine. However, when they went upstairs to the entrance foyer outside room XIII, they realized something was wrong. Or rather, someone.
The Duke of Wellington – for he was no less – did not stare at them inscrutably, as was his custom. He was gone.
The theft of Wellington’s portrait by Francisco de Goya on August 21, 1961 was a sensation.
The culprit had escaped detection, but there was a consensus that such a daring heist must have been the work of a master criminal.
Step forward Kempton Bunton, a retired bus driver from Newcastle upon Tyne who walked into New Scotland Yard one summer day in 1965 and confessed to the crime, two months after the painting turned up in a luggage locker at Birmingham New Street station.
There was another postscript to the fantastical story, nearly 50 years later, in 2012, when the release of archived documents showed that Kempton’s son, John, known as Jackie, had confessed in 1969 that it was he who stole the Goya.
In fact, the couple had operated in cahoots.
Now the story has been made into a movie, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent as Kempton, Helen Mirren as his wife, Dorothy, and Fionn Whitehead as Jackie, due out in September.
Kempton died in 1976, but his son, Jackie, a retired mechanic, is 79 and lives in Newcastle.
So how did Kempton, or Jackie, or both, manage it? Where did they hide the photo and why did they do it?
The story has been made into a movie, The Duke, with Jim Broadbent as Kempton (far right), Helen Mirren as his wife, Dorothy (far left) and Fionn Whitehead as Jackie
The answers to these questions begin with the birth of Kempton Cannon Bunton on June 14, 1904. He is named after Kempton Cannon, a famous jockey of the time.
While his mother was pregnant, she had had a good win at the races after supporting a horse ridden by Mr. Cannon.
This auspicious start in life may have marked Kempton for greatness — or at least fame.
He seems to have been a restless soul. He left school at the age of 13 and later joined the merchant navy, but only stayed there for a few months. He spent 18 months in Australia and on his return, in his twenties, he held various jobs, including bus driver, bus driver and labourer.
Kempton married Dorothy in 1925 and they raised their large family in a terraced house on Yewcroft Avenue in Newcastle. He was an eccentric character and developed an obsession with the BBC’s license fee. He started a campaign to exempt retirees in Newcastle from the allowance and gained a reputation as a local hero.
In 1960, he spent a total of 69 days in prison for refusing to pay a television license after modifying his set to receive only ITV.
In 1961 he was 57, unemployed and living on £8 a week of National Assistance. A world away in London, in June of that year, the Duke of Leeds sold the portrait of the Duke of Wellington at auction for £140,000 to an American collector. The government, claiming to be acting in the national interest, halted the sale and financed a purchase from the Duke of Leeds at the same price – around £2million in today’s money.
On August 3, 1961, the National Gallery proudly unveiled its latest acquisition, the portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, by the Spanish master Goya (1746-1828), and the story was widely reported in the newspapers.
This was when Kempton came up with the idea of stealing the portrait to publicize his case – and a conspiracy was hatched involving Jackie, who was then about 20 years old.
On August 21, just 18 days after the exhibition, the painting was successfully withdrawn from the National Gallery. The thief had apparently broken through one of the best security systems in the country. The disappearance of the Duke of Wellington became a national obsession.
Some newspapers speculated that the theft was the work of a gang of high-class Riviera criminals led by a Frenchman known as Pierrot the Fool.
Others concluded that the thief showed the kind of undertaking that could only have arisen from wartime paratrooper training with the Special Air Service (SAS).
The public flocked to the National Gallery to look at the bare space where the Duke’s portrait had once hung. The theft was even mentioned in the first James Bond film, Dr No, in 1962. As Sean Connery’s 007 walks through his opponent’s underwater lair, he sees the Goya standing upright on a donkey and casually remarks, “So there it is.’
The theft of the Duke of Wellington was amusing to all but the National Gallery. Sir Philip Hendy, the director of the gallery, who was in the bath when he got the phone call that the portrait had gone missing, later said: ‘How do you feel when you’ve lost a Goya? You feel like an idiot, and that’s the truth.’
The infamous theft was even mentioned by Sean Connery in the first James Bond film, Dr No, in 1962
The Metropolitan Police investigation provided a clue as to how the theft might have been carried out. When the painting disappeared, renovations were underway in the gallery. A window in the public men’s room overlooking the interior of the building’s two courtyards had apparently been left open and a construction ladder had been removed from its usual spot and placed under the window.
On August 31, 1961, the first of a series of anonymous ransom notes, known as the ‘COM’ letters, was sent to the Reuters news agency postmarked ‘London SW1’.
The writer gave details of identifying features on the back of the painting that could only be known to the thief, and went on to say, ‘Don’t ask if I have the Goya. . . The photo is not, will not be for sale. . . it is to give ransom – £140,000 – to charity.’
On September 26, a reward of £5,000 was offered for the painting’s return.
Another ‘COM’ letter, postmarked ‘Lancaster, Morecambe’, was received by the Exchange Telegraph News Agency on July 4, 1962 and read puzzlingly: ‘The Duke is safe. His temperature was worrying – his future uncertain. . .’
The notes were ignored; it all went quiet. It was feared that the duke was lost forever.
But then, on 25 May 1965, another message came, sent to the Daily Mirror, containing a left-luggage office, number F24458, from Birmingham New Street station.
The police rushed to the station and confiscated the package containing the ticket. Inside, they found the missing painting of the Duke of Wellington – no worse for wear, but minus the frame. De Goya was certified as genuine by the National Gallery.
Two months later, Kempton Bunton walked into New Scotland Yard and confessed to stealing the portrait. He thought it best to do that after letting something slip to a friend at the pub.
During an earlier exploration of the gallery, Kempton said, he had struck up a conversation with a security guard, who had helpfully told him that the electronic alarm was turned off early every morning while the cleaners went about their business. He said he climbed through a restroom window into the National Gallery, using a construction ladder.
He stole the portrait at 5:50 a.m., when the guards must have been sleeping or playing cards.
The theft of Wellington’s portrait by Francisco de Goya on August 21, 1961 was a sensation
Kempton threw the frame away and when he returned home with the photo, he hid the Duke in the back of his wardrobe.
He did not tell his wife about the daring crime. “If I had,” he said, “the whole world would have known.”
He told police, “My sole purpose in all of this was to set up a charity to pay for television licenses for old and poor people who seem to have been neglected in our affluent society.”
Kempton was charged with five felonies, including theft, and his trial began on November 4, 1965 at the Old Bailey. It was his good fortune to be defended by Jeremy Hutchinson QC, a leading advocate of the time, played in the film by Matthew Goode, star of The Crown and Downton Abbey.
The image of the tall, bespectacled, trilby-wearing grandfather, pipe in hand, was a far cry from the traditional image of the master criminal.
Thanks to Hutchinson, who successfully argued that it is not a crime to remove a photograph from an art gallery, provided it is not intended to be permanently preserved, Bunton was acquitted of all charges except one: the theft of the list, valued at £100, and sentenced to three months in Ford Prison.
After his release, he disappeared from the public eye and his death in 1976 was not covered in the national press.
For many years Kempton’s version of events was accepted as the truth. But then another twist came when the National Archives released a prosecutor’s file in 2012, which told a different story.
It turned out that Kempton’s son Jackie had confessed in 1969 that he had stolen the Goya.
After being arrested in Leeds in July 1969 and fingerprinted for a minor offence, he became concerned that he had left his imprints on the painting and decided to act. He told the police what really happened. Just before dawn on Monday, August 21, 1961, he had balanced himself on a parking meter to get over the back wall of the gallery.
He then used a twenty-foot ladder left by builders to climb through the unlocked window of a men’s room to enter the main house.
The painting was on an easel in an enclosed space at the top of the main staircase.
“I went there, grabbed it and carried it back to the men’s room,” he said.
He climbed out the window again, down the ladder, and returned to the back wall.
“I climbed the wall, still holding the photo in one hand. . . I put the photo in the backseat of the car and drove back to Grafton Street [his West End digs]. I then put the photo under my bed.’
In true comedy heist style, Jackie had to launch the little black Wolseley he was using as a getaway car.
He said his father had “ordered” him not to tell the truth, presumably to protect his son. However, there may have been a part of Kempton Bunton that was in the spotlight.
The theft from the Duke of Wellington was thus a joint venture between father and son. Sir Norman Skelhorn, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, told police that Jackie Bunton’s confession alone was not enough to prosecute him.
So that was it – case closed.
But what about the Duke of Wellington?
The painting is out of the country, on the National Gallery’s international tour to Japan and Australia.
It is currently on display in Canberra, but at the end of July it will hang on the walls of the National Gallery again.
At least that’s the plan. . .