Jim Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton in the dramatic comedy "The Duke".

“If we catch him, what’s the best way to run away?”

“Let’s go that way,” he says, pointing to my right, “so we can get to the second floor, then go to the men’s room. There’s a staircase in the back, the 1961 staircase.”

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The man who gives me advice on how to steal a painting knows what he’s talking about. It was his grandfather who stole Goya’s famous “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from the National Gallery From london.

Six decades after the only robbery to occur at that London art museum, Christopher Bunton has finally revealed the full story about what really happened.

His father had outlined it to him when he was 14, and he did more research and came up with the idea of ​​making a movie.

“I felt like a lot of the information that was released publicly was accurate, but a lot of it was speculation and a little unfair to my grandfather.”

The painting of the Duke of Wellington “was taken from this gallery and spent four and a half years in my grandparents’ house in Newcastle (England),” he says.

“It’s an incredible headline, but for me the important thing was to include my family’s point of view in the story and the factors that influenced my grandparents’ decision making.

“Really it is about a family drama and the struggle of the working class“.

The events recounted served as inspiration for director Roger Michell’s film “The Duke,” starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren.

“A good man”

Jim Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton in the dramatic comedy “The Duke.”

The hero of the story is Christopher’s grandfather, Kempton Bunton.

He was a father of five who had dropped out of school at age 13 and held a variety of jobs (many of very short duration), including working as a taxi driver.

He was a good man despite all his faults and he wanted to do what was best for his family, but he also wanted to help people who needed support,” adds Bunton.

One of his passions was the BBC. More than once he had refused to pay the license or tax that exists in the country to watch the television channels of the British chain.

“I was convinced that television was a cure for the loneliness of retirees and war veterans and at that time there was not much else for people who were isolated and alone.

“My grandfather recognized the value of the BBC, so he felt it should be available free of charge to all who needed it, and the theft was part of his campaign to give free TV licenses to senior citizens.”

The work

Broadbent and Helen Mirren at the film's premiere "The Duke"at the National Gallery in London in February.
Broadbent and Helen Mirren at the premiere of the film “The Duke” at the National Gallery in London in February.

That year, the “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” had been in the news as Charles Bierer Wrightsman, an American oil magnate and art collector, had bought it at auction for $390,000 (about $3.5 million today) and he planned to take it to the US.

The British government decided to buy the work for the same amount, to prevent it from leaving the country, and thanks to this it had arrived at the National Gallery just over a week ago.

It was obviously precious so after stealing it, Kempton Bunton demanded that the sum of £140,000 be donated to pay for poor people’s TV licenses and that they be granted amnesty (those who did not pay the license were sentenced to jail).

The request was ignored.

The painting was returned in 1965 by the author of the theft himself.

However, some of the facts that were revealed at the time did not make much sense.

For example, the bathroom window said to have been used to get the painting out of the gallery was very small, and Kempton Bunton was large. The judge at the time commented on Bunton’s “remarkable athletic feat”.

But, what at first seems like a comical caper was more than just an unlikely art theft.

The Kempton Bunton trial marked a historic milestone.

Helen Mirren played the role of Dorothy Bunton, Kempton's wife.
Helen Mirren played the role of Dorothy Bunton, Kempton’s wife.

The defense argument was that essentially Kempton he had borrowed the painting for a few years.

Years later, this led to a new crime being added to the code when the theft law was rewritten in 1968, “any person who without lawful authority removes any article displayed to the public…shall be guilty of a crime.”

Kempton Bunton’s eventual conviction was for the theft of the frame, which was not returned to the National Gallery.

He spent three months in prison and died a decade later, in 1976.


Kempton Bunton’s confession and trial made him, briefly, famous. For the family in Newcastle, struggling to get by, it was more complicated.

“Is he a hero in your family?” I asked Christopher.

“For me? Yes,” he replies. “My dad is not so convinced.”

It’s not something my family is proud ofAnd I think now that it’s turned into something positive, it’s something we can be proud of in the future.”

“He could have been a better family man,” he continues. “He was a bit selfish, but at the same time he performed an extraordinary feat for the benefit of his family.

“He’s a contradictory character. He’s likeable but he’s not a superhero.”

And in case you were wondering, the escape route out the window is gone and someone has moved the ladder.

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