Ransom notes released 60 years after theft of portrait in bid to secure free TV licences for elderly

ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner reports on the extraordinary theft of the Duke of Wellington portrait

Sixty years after the theft of a high-profile painting in a bid to secure more spending on the elderly with a specific focus on free TV licences, the National Gallery has released some of the ransom notes.

Kempton Bunton took Francisco Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington in August 1961 just 19 days after it had gone on display.

The Newcastle taxi driver then sent ransom notes saying he would return the painting if more money was spent on looking after the elderly, with a specific interest in free TV licences.

The Duke of Wellington was returned almost four years after it was stolen, with Bunton’s lawyer successfully arguing his client never intended to keep the painting and he was only convicted of taking the frame.

Undated handout photo of a letter written by the man who stole the portrait. Credit: The National Gallery

To mark the anniversary of the theft, the National Gallery has released photographed papers including a reward notice from the Metropolitan Police, a handwritten ransom note and a statement on the Gallery’s position following the ransom demands.

They are held at the gallery’s research centre. The painting itself is currently on display in Room 45.

The portrait, which was painted following Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, was acquired by the state after the government stepped in to stop it being bought by an American tycoon.

The theft was referenced in the 1962 James Bond film Dr No in a scene in which the painting was on display at the titular villain’s lair, suggesting he had stolen the work.

Bunton’s taking of the portrait will be explored in The Duke, a film set for release next year, starring Jim Broadbent and Dame Helen Mirren.

Director Roger Michell said: "It’s amazing to think this painting was once hidden at the back of a wardrobe in Newcastle.

"And perhaps even more amazing that 60 years later I got to make a film about how it ended up there!"

Undated handout photo issued by The National Gallery of the third ransom note. Credit: The National Gallery

He added: "It’s a story that provides much laughter (and a few tears), boosted undoubtedly by the brilliance of Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. There’s also a delicious twist that I can’t wait to share with the public when the film is finally in cinemas next spring.

"In the meantime, enjoy Goya’s painting as it was meant to be enjoyed: hanging on the wall of the National Gallery."

Bunton died in Newcastle in 1976.

Free TV licences for the over-75s began in November 2000.