New Kāpiti film tells of reluctant Frances Hodgkins painting sitter

Paraparaumu’s Red Capewell may now be in her ’80s but age hasn’t dimmed her recollection of the time her mother-in-law Alice, the daughter of an Italian fisherman, was asked by New Zealand’s most acclaimed expatriate painter, Frances Hodgkins to sit for two paintings.

Red tells the story in a new short film, Alice’s Secret, produced by the Kāpiti Coast District Gallery, Mahara Gallery in Waikanae.

When Frances Hodgkins and her friend Dorothy Kate Richmond came to Paraparaumu on a painting holiday in 1905, they looked for someone to carry their equipment.

“Frances was told to go across the road to the Berretti house because there were four girls there and surely one of them could carry her easel,” says Red Capewell in the film.

“Well, she knocked on the door and Alice Berretti answered and she had her hair all tucked up in a tam ‘o shanter beautiful, Italian, auburn hair. But she didn’t like it because she got teased.”

When Frances Hodgkins saw the hair she told Alice that she wanted to paint her. The result was Babette, now held in the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt and The Goose Girl, one of the best known of Frances Hodgkins’ works held in the Kāpiti-based Field Collection.

Soon after the sitting, Frances Hodgkins left New Zealand and was only to return once before remaining permanently in Britain and Europe.

The film gets its title from Alice’s reluctance to tell anybody about the sittings. The family didn’t find out until a gathering to celebrate Alice’s 70th birthday.

The Wellington Evening Post was delivered and one of the family who was looking through it stumbled on a story and photograph telling the story of the red-headed girl who sat for Frances Hodgkins.

“She sort of hung her head,” says Red. “And then she said, ‘Oh, that’s me’. And it was just, ‘Mum, why didn’t you tell us?’ And she said, she didn’t think anyone would want to know.”

Red Capewell is delighted that the film has given her the chance to tell her mother-in-law’s story.

“I’m emotional about it because I’m quite proud of it,” says Red. “As a family we’re proud of the fact that Frances Hodgkins painted one of our relatives.”

While Red Capewell and Gallery Director Janet Bayly tell the story, they are joined in the story-telling by Kapanui school pupil Te Korenga Lemmon whose .long red hair makes her an ideal young Alice.

It also provides a glimpse inside what used to be Pudney House, the boarding house in Amohia Street Paraparaumu where Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Kate Richmond stayed during the painting holiday.

The film underlines the importance of the Field Collection to Kāpiti and the possibility that it could be lost to the district if rapid progress isn’t made on bringing Mahara Gallery up to museum standard to accommodate it.

“I’m very strong about the Field Collection staying in Kāpiti because it was a Kāpiti person who was painted here by such a famous person,” says Red.

“How many other people here have been painted by a famous person? Let’s keep it here.”

Alice’s Secret has been written and directed by Kevin Ramshaw and filmed and edited by Dean Hapeta of Kia Kaha Productions.

Gallery Director Janet Bayly says the Gallery plans to make it available to download from the Mahara Gallery website.