Who is Kempton Bunton? The real life story of the Newcastle bus driver who inspired 'The Duke' film

18.02.22 kempton benton and jim broadbent side by side pics from PA IMAGES
Kempton Bunton, and actor Jim Broadbent at the premiere for 'The Duke' Credit: PA

Kempton Bunton was a retired bus driver from Newcastle, whose surprising story has become the inspiration for new film 'The Duke'.

How did the life of an unassuming retiree from the North East end up on the big screen, played by Jim Broadbent? Here are all the facts, hearsay and surprising details.

Who is Kempton Bunton?

Bunton was 61-years-old at the time, a retired bus driver, living in his native Newcastle in a council flat. He was married, and had five children, including three sons.

Why did he (allegedly) steal the portrait?

Benton was living on £8 a week, as he was on National Assistance. (That would amount to just over £180 a week nowadays)

In 1961, he found out that an American art collector had bought Francisco de Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington for £140,000 (around £2m today), prompting the British Government to buy it back for the same sum so it remained in the country. It was returned to the National Gallery in London.

Reportedly, Bunton was furious to hear this, especially as he was paying for his TV Licence from his £8 a week income - and decided to steal the portrait to draw attention to his campaign in the early 1960s to get free television licences for old aged people in Newcastle.

How did he (allegedly) pull off the theft?

According to his own testimony, he had spoken to guards at the gallery and learnt that the security system was deactivated in the early hours to allow the cleaners to go round tidying up. Bunton said he went at this time on the 21st August 1961, and gained entry to the gallery through a window in the men's toilet. He then walked through, grabbed the painting and went back out the window.

Accounts say he then went home and kept the painting under his bed.

Did he get caught?

Bunton began to send letters to news agencies asking for a donation of £140,000 to pay for TV licences for the elderly, and an amnesty for the thief but none of the requests were granted.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Bunton contacted a newspaper and returned the painting via a luggage office at Birmingham New Street station.

Six weeks later, he also gave himself up to the Police, who had not considered him a suspect due to his age.

He ended up being convicted just for stealing the frame, which had not been returned, and he was sentenced to three months imprisonment at H.M. Prison Ford.

Was it actually him?

It's thought it was actually his son. In 1969, John Bunton confessed to the theft after being arrested for a different offence. He said his father had told him not to come forward.

This was revealed in 2021, when the National Gallery released a previously confidential file as part of a Freedom of Information request.

Where is the portrait now?

The Duke of Wellington portrait still hangs in the National Gallery in London.

When does the film come out?

The Duke will be released on February 25.

It stars Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton, Helen Mirren as his wife Dorothy.