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Alice and Babette

Author: Jo Wehrly, Collections Manager
On Thursday, we were delighted to host Des Capewell at The Dowse. Des’ mother Alice Berreti was the model for Frances Hodgkins’ painting Babette, held in our collection.

Here’s Des Capewell with Babette, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, gift of the Atkinson family. The portrait was painted when Alice was only 14 years old, but Des and his family didn’t know it existed until nearly 56 years later when a local paper was set to publish a story about it.

Des tells us it was an accidental meeting that resulted in the portrait. Recovering from a broken engagement, Frances Hodgkins had gone with her Aunt to Paraparaumu, where they stayed in a local guest house. The artist asked if there were any boys around who could help her carry her pallet up the hill to paint the view. She was told there were no boys, but across the road at the Berretti house were four able girls. Alice happened to be the one to answer the door, with her vivid auburn hair hidden, as usual, under a Tam o’ Shanter (Scottish bonnet). Hodgkins saw a strand of hair hanging down and pulling off Alice’s hat said “I want to paint you”. Alice was a very shy girl but agreed; “Only if you don’t paint my proper face so I can’t be recognised.”

The next day Hodgkins returned and painted another portrait The Goose Girl of Alice sitting on a kennel surrounded by ducks. Both sittings were at the Berretti’s Hinemoa Street house in Paraparaumu, very close to where the over bridge now crosses the railway tracks.

Des showed me a photo taken of Alice at 14 and there are subtle differences in ‘Babette’ but the length of hair and even her dress were identical.

Alice lived all her life in the Wellington and Kapiti Coast area, working various jobs including house keeping at the German Embassy in Wellington, until marrying at 23. Six children were raised on the Coast, including Des and his twin brother.

It was so wonderful to hear this story from Des and his wife Red, and see the pleasure they gained from viewing the portrait. Des had never seen it in the flesh before! This special family history has given a whole new, personal perspective to the artwork.

Jo Wehrly, Registrar

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