Monday, 30 November -0001

The 'theft' of the Duke of Wellington

In 1961 a retired bus driver stole a Goya from the National Gallery. The heist gripped the public’s imagination and made legal history. His defence? Pensioners were being ripped off .

Written by Thomas Grant
In 1812, after his entry into Madrid in the course of the Peninsular War, the victorious Duke of Wellington sat for a portrait by Francisco Goya. It is a penetrating characterisation. The heat of Spain and the weariness of battle are hinted at in a face that is slightly flushed but also imperious. Although Wellington wears his full dress uniform and regalia, there is a sense of his private character having been, almost despite himself, revealed.

In 1961 the painting was purchased at Sotheby’s in London by an American art collector, Charles Wrightsman, for the then stupendous sum of £140,000. Uproar ensued. Could such a national treasure, which had long been in the family of the Duke of Leeds, be permitted to cross the Atlantic? Wrightsman graciously agreed to sell the painting to the nation at the price he paid and, between them, the Wolfson Foundation and the Treasury funded the purchase. Britain’s greatest warrior was saved and henceforth would be on public display to the nation.

Wellington went on show at the National Gallery in London, with considerable fanfare, on 2 August 1961. Just 19 days later it went missing. Dumbfounded security guards could offer no explanation and no clues pointed to the painting’s whereabouts. This was the first time that a painting had ever been stolen from the National Gallery and there was consternation at the highest levels. The National Gallery’s director offered his immediate resignation. The theft prompted an official enquiry into security at all of Britain’s national galleries and museums, leading to far-reaching improvements – no longer would open windows lead to such easy pickings. A reward of £5,000 was offered for the return of the painting.

The newspapers reported that the investigation into the missing picture apparently extended, through Interpol, throughout the world. Trains were stopped; aircraft and ships searched; hundreds of people were interviewed.

It was assumed that this was the work of a professional art thief until an anonymous letter was received by a newspaper demanding a donation of £140,000 to charity and an amnesty for the perpetrator in exchange for the painting’s return. ‘This act is an attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity,’ the letter explained. This odd but intriguing offer was declined. There followed a number of further letters making similar demands.

The National Gallery received a letter assuring it that ‘The picture is not and will not be for sale. It is for ransom: £140,000 to be given to charity. If a fund is started it should be quickly made up and on the promise of a free pardon for the culprits the picture will be handed back. None of the group concerned in this escapade have any criminal convictions. All good people are urged to help this affair to a speedy conclusion.’ The National Gallery remained unmoved, despite the offer of ‘three pennyworth of old Spanish firewood in exchange for £140,000 of human happiness’. Then the Daily Mirror received the following note, headed ‘Goya Com 3’, carefully printed in capitals:

The Duke is safe, his temperature cared for, his future uncertain. The painting is neither to be cloak-roomed or kiosked as such would defeat our purpose and leave us forever open to arrest. We want pardons, or the right to leave the country – banishment? We ask that some non-conformist type of person with the sportitude of a Butlin and the fearless fortitude of a Montgomery should start a fund for £140,000. No law can touch him…

Unfortunately, no such nonconformist came forward and the trail otherwise went cold.

Nonetheless, public interest as to the whereabouts of the picture remained intense. The theft even hit the big screen: in a scene from Dr No, made in 1962, James Bond, walking through his adversary’s lair, encounters Wellington propped up on an easel. Bond pauses and remarks in the trademark Connery deadpan, ‘So there it is.’

Ever since its mysterious disappearance, the Daily Mirror had been conducting a vigorous campaign for the return of Wellington. In June 1965 its efforts were rewarded. Its editor received an anonymous communication enclosing a left-luggage ticket issued at Birmingham New Street station. Wellington was rediscovered, rolled up and frameless, in this rather prosaic repository. It was swiftly returned to the National Gallery and its relieved director. The picture was back where it should be; but the mystery had hardly been solved.

A few weeks later, on 19 July 1965, a certain Kempton Bunton – so named because his father had apparently had a big win at the races there – surrendered himself to the police and confessed to being the culprit. Bunton, a 61-year-old retired Newcastle bus driver, and a figure about as far removed from Dr No as it is possible to imagine, said that he was concerned that, after a few too many pints at his local, he had ‘let something drop and was anxious that the reward of £5,000 should not be collected by a certain person… To stop that I decided to give myself up… You would never have found it in 800 years. I put it at the back of my wardrobe and boarded it up.’ Such was the confession that Detective Chief Inspector Weisner solemnly noted down.

The police were initially reluctant to credit Bunton’s confession. Here was a man well into late middle age, over 6ft tall and weighing more than 18st. How could he break into the National Gallery unnoticed? But Bunton was insistent. He told the incredulous officers that he had taken the painting as a protest against the imposition on poor pensioners of a mandatory television licence fee; he had presumably viewed the partially state-funded purchase of Wellington as a particularly acute example of false priorities. In fact, throughout the early 1960s Bunton had conducted a very public campaign against the licence fee and had twice been sentenced to short stretches in prison for his refusal to pay (his defence that he had altered his television set so that he could not receive BBC having failed to impress the Newcastle magistrates).

Fantastical as it seemed, Bunton’s story was supported by the forensic scientists and fingerprint experts called in to check it. A handwriting test confirmed his authorship of the ransom notes. Bunton also explained his methodology to the police. He had learned, from indiscreet remarks made to him by gallery guards, that the electronic security system was turned off every morning to allow the cleaners to do their rounds. During a visit to the gallery, he had opened a window in a lavatory, which he was then able to climb in through the following morning, taking advantage of a ladder fortuitously left by builders. While the guards were playing cards he removed the painting, still in its frame, from the wall and made his escape through the same window.

Bunton’s confession was leaked and he was soon being lionised in the press as a particular example of the English underdog hero – ‘a dreamer in a crumpled suit’. His photograph is ubiquitous in the tabloids of the day: a tall, ungainly, lumbering sort of man, pipe in hand, a jocular face sporting those round Bakelite glasses that seem to have been standard-issue in the early 1960s, to bus drivers and politicians alike.

Bunton’s wife was on hand to say her piece: Kempton was ‘a clever man and a deep thinker’, who had ‘absolutely no regard for money. He would go a whole week with a halfpenny in his pocket providing he got his meals. He doesn’t drink and would share his last pipe of baccy with anyone who had none.’ It also turned out that he had written several plays, articles and even a novel: but none had ever been published. Having served as an air-raid warden in the war Bunton had then had a series of casual jobs. But, his wife continued ruefully, he would always leave after ‘rowing with his boss over a matter of principle’.

DukeOfWellington-Jun19-01-590

The authorities were not so mesmerised by this unlikely star. Bunton was prosecuted for theft, making demands with menaces and causing a public nuisance. The last charge was founded on the accusation that, by removing the painting, Bunton had ‘deprived people of their enjoyment of it’. The trial came on at the Old Bailey in November 1965 before the Recorder of London, Judge Aarvold.

Jeremy Hutchinson – the top criminal barrister whose other famous cases included the Lady Chatterley trial and the Profumo affair, and who recently turned 100 – had been retained as leading counsel for Bunton. He decided to put forward a simple but ingenious defence. The definition of theft at that time required that the defendant should take property belonging to another person with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of it. Jeremy would contend that Bunton could not be guilty of the offence of theft because he had never intended to deprive the owner – the National Gallery – of the painting permanently. He had merely intended to ‘borrow’ Wellington to draw attention to what he considered to be the ‘outrageous’ sum of £140,000 paid for it ‘when so many old-age pensioners could not even afford a television licence’. Jeremy recalls, ‘The judge was absolutely furious when he came to realise what the defence was. The idea that Bunton would plead “not guilty” did not occur to him.’

The trial started with the heavily guarded painting being shown and identified to the jurors by Michael Levey, then assistant keeper of the National Gallery. Jeremy vigorously cross-examined Levey about the painting. He had, he recalls, an ace up his sleeve in the form of the pronouncements of a past president of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, who had questioned the authenticity of the painting, calling it ‘slick, incompetent and vulgar’.

Jeremy slowly built up the point. Was not the Royal Academy an august institution of artistic learning? Yes. Were not its presidents only appointed on account of their eminence in the field of art? Yes. Had not Sir Gerald publicly questioned Wellington? Flustered, the hapless Levey admitted there had been controversy concerning the authenticity of the painting; and Sir Gerald might have said something to the effect that the painting was incompetent and vulgar. Jeremy continued. There were those, were there not, besides Mr Bunton, but also respectable figures in the art world, who thought £140,000 was an outrageous sum to pay for this picture? Well, admitted Levey, there had been a certain amount of criticism. When the prosecution objected to this line of questioning as irrelevant, Jeremy robustly asserted that the issue of authenticity was relevant to the charge against Bunton that he had caused a public nuisance: ‘If you are stopping someone going to see an old bit of canvas with a piece of paint slapped on it, there might be some difference between that and a painting worth £140,000.’ The judge interjected to say to Jeremy that whether Wellington was ‘a genuine picture or rubbish it would still be a picture of interest to the public’. If he was going to try to prove during the trial that Wellington was a fake ‘I shall be interested but I doubt whether I shall allow it.’

Jeremy then challenged Lord Robbins, the chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery – who had made the ultimate decision to purchase this ‘old bit of canvas’ – on the authenticity of the painting and the price paid. Robbins, a much-admired acquaintance of Jeremy, unlike Levey found Jeremy’s questions rather more congenial and could not suppress a halfwink from the witness box. By this time the judge was becoming thoroughly agitated with Jeremy’s questions concerning the painting’s provenance. ‘Mr Hutchinson, I do not want this trial to be a debating forum on the qualities of this picture. I rule the question irrelevant.’ But the damage had been done to the prosecution case: the jury were left with the suspicion that not only had the state paid a very large sum of money for a painting – money that could have been used to assist deserving pensioners struggling to pay their television licences – but it might have bought a dud. Might Bunton have a point?

Meanwhile, Lord Robbins was enjoying his jousting with Jeremy. He was asked whether he had ever said that if the painting were returned the National Gallery would not treat it as a criminal matter. Lord Robbins’s response was that he would never say that: ‘It would have been an open invitation to any flighty-minded person to borrow a Michelangelo or the Virgin of the Rocks and say for £500,000 to be given to the Boy Scouts it would be returned and there would be no offence.’ Jeremy then, with the air of making a casual aside, asked Lord Robbins if he felt at all alarmed when he had received Bunton’s letter of demands. A conviction on the second charge would require evidence that the victim was caused some fear or apprehension by the menaces made. Lord Robbins retorted, ‘No, of course not.’ That put paid to that charge.

Kempton Bunton then lumbered into the witness box. It was his turn to explain himself. In answer to questions put by Jeremy, he confirmed that when he had read about the price paid for Wellington he considered that the £140,000 ‘could be better spent in buying television licences for old-age pensioners’. When he came to London he ‘had the idea of taking this picture from the National Gallery. On arriving I had a very bad dose of flu and the whole thing was rather hazy, but I had a job to do and I did it.’ When he got home he had put the painting in a cupboard in his bedroom; he had not told his wife because ‘the world would have known if I had done so’. Bunton then, with a naivety that must have won over the jury, said that he had assumed that after his first ransom letter there would be an ‘immediate collection for the picture as the money was to go to charity’. But he was insistent that he always intended to return the painting and never wanted any money for himself. ‘It was no good to me otherwise. I could not have hung it in my kitchen.’ Jeremy remembers what a charming character Kempton Bunton was and how his performance clearly endeared himself to the jury. Here was ‘sportitude’ in the flesh.

The growing smiles on the jury’s faces encouraged Jeremy to launch an attack on the whole prosecution. The authorities, he suggested, were desperate to ‘get the man who removed the £140,000 Goya portrait convicted of something. Maybe those concerned were irked that the wrong charges had been framed… But nothing in this country is a crime unless it is expressly forbidden by law, however inconvenient and unfortunate that might be.’ Certainly it was ‘not a crime in law to remove a picture from an art gallery, provided there was no intention to keep it permanently… You may think,’ Jeremy told the jury, ‘the law is stupid about this. If someone goes into your house and takes your television set because he wants to watch a football match and then keeps it, it is extremely irritating and annoying but it is not stealing. It is not stealing if you take your neighbour’s lawnmower and forget all about it. If at the time the television set or the lawnmower was taken there was no intention of keeping it permanently you may have caused annoyance and intense irritation but it is not theft.’

Whether or not the jury was swayed by this argument or whether it was simply charmed by Bunton’s gumption will never be known. But it acquitted Bunton of all charges, except that of theft of the frame of the picture, which Bunton said he had left in a King’s Cross boarding house four years earlier and which he had been unable to locate. This frame was valued at £100, a drop in the ocean compared to the value of the painting itself. ‘He had no idea it was even so valuable as that,’ pleaded Jeremy. Nonetheless the judge sentenced Bunton to three months in prison. In his sentencing remarks the judge could not hide his irritation at the jury’s leniency: ‘The jury have accepted that at the material time you intended to return this picture and they have accepted that you made no demands for money with menaces for yourself or for charity as such. I, of course, accept the jury’s verdict on these matters, but motives, even if they are good, cannot justify creeping into art galleries in order to extract paintings of value so that you can use them for your own purposes. This has got to be discouraged.’ Jeremy’s reaction to the sentence passed on Bunton was that ‘the judge committed a serious offence under section 1 of the Dirty Tricks Act’.

As for Bunton, he remained, as the Daily Express put it, ‘bulkily impassive’ as he heard the sentence being pronounced. Perhaps surprisingly for a man so garrulous in his ransom notes, it is reported that, after sentence had been passed, he merely declared, ‘I have nothing further to say’, before marching away to the cells, ‘pausing only to smooth the creases from his cheap, crumpled suit’.

That was not the end of the matter. The authorities had taken note of Jeremy’s arguments and the sympathy they had apparently elicited from the jury. In the National Gallery’s biannual account of its activities, published in early 1967, it was complained, ‘To most of the world it was a shock to read that it is not against the English law to climb into a public gallery at dead of night, remove a national treasure, keep it hidden for several years and meanwhile attempt to extort ransom money from the public for whom it had just been acquired… Bunton’s trial has had the unfortunate result of informing the world that deeds like his can be performed in England with impunity – provided the perpetrator is more careful about details than Bunton was over the frame.’ The response was a swiftly introduced change in the law. The Theft Act 1968 contained a new provision at section 11: ‘where the public have access to a building in order to view the building or part of it, or a collection or part of a collection housed in it, any person who without lawful authority removes from the building or its grounds the whole or part of any article displayed or kept for display to the public in the building or that part of it or in its grounds shall be guilty of an offence’.

The law may have been quickly changed, but it took Bunton rather longer to achieve the aim of his protest. Free television licences for the over-75s were only introduced in 2000.

There is an intriguing postscript to the case. After Bunton left prison in early 1966 it was reported that his son had distributed letters to the press inviting sealed bids for the full story ‘plus film rights’, and including the tantalising suggestion that his ‘defence advisors knew as little about the truth as you do’. It is not clear if any bids were forthcoming, but certainly no film was made. However, in 1969 it was reported that a man from Leeds had apparently taken responsibility for the ‘crime’. Nothing further came of that, but many years later, in 2012, the National Archives released a confidential file from the Director of Public Prosecutions dating from 1969, in which it appeared that the ‘man from Leeds’ was none other than Bunton’s son, who had himself apparently confessed to the police that he – not his father – had taken the painting, in exactly the way Bunton had described to the police in 1965, to draw attention to his father’s campaign against the television licence fee. Having crawled through the lavatory window, he had then given the painting to Bunton Sr. The policeman who had taken down Bunton Jr’s confession believed it. He reported: At the time of the offence, Kempton was 57 years old. He is a tall, heavily built man, who now weighs somewhere in the region of 18st, and it is extremely unlikely that he would have had the agility to scale the outer wall and make his way unaided to the toilet window. He would also in my view have been incapable of returning to the wall and climbing over it, without causing some damage to the painting, whereas his son, John, who at that time was only 20 years of age, is still of good physique and would have been quite capable of taking the painting in the manner in which he describes.

Nonetheless, bruised by the result in the first trial, the authorities decided to take the matter no further. The police’s original doubts about Bunton’s ability to squeeze through a first-floor lavatory window may have been justified after all. So far as I know, the authenticity of Goya’s Wellington has not since been questioned. It remains on view in Room 39 at the National Gallery.

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, by Thomas Grant, is published by John Murray, priced £25.




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