The French-Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mouchette, Berthe (1846–1928)

Berthe Mouchette, founder of the Alliance Française in Australia, artist and educator, was born Berthe Julie Lucie Lion on 22 February 1846 in the town of Forcalquier in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, France. She was the daughter of Louis Jean-Marie Lion and Anne Deguilhem Pemilat. In January 1855 the family moved to Marseillan in the department of Hérault in the south of France where her father was a contractor with the railways department.

By 1872 Berthe Lion was living in Paris where she married Nicholas Emile Mouchette who was born in Paris in 1838. His father was M. Didier Mouchette and his mother was Elizabeth Figuatelle. Mme Mouchette was a pupil of the art teacher Mme Schneider and exhibited some of her work at the Paris Salon in 1878, 1879 and 1881.

Mouchette with his wife and sister-in-law, Mlle Marie Lion, attended a lecture about Australia by ‘Tasma’, Mrs Jessie Fraser. They were so impressed with the eloquence and enthusiasm of Mrs Fraser’s presentation of Australia that they decided to travel to the new country, arriving in Melbourne on 2 September 1881.

Mme Mouchette lost little time in establishing a school for artists in Mr Fletcher’s gallery located at 87 Collins Street East. Moving into premises in Nepean Terrace, East Melbourne, the two ladies and M. Mouchette applied to become Associates of the Victorian Academy of Arts. Mme Mouchette opened a studio at 5 Collins Street East and commenced courses in drawing and painting which drew a good following.

In The Age of 26 July 1884, a description was given of an oil portrait by Berthe Mouchette of Mrs. Lucinda Gullett, wife of Henry Gullett, editor of The Australasian newspaper. This fine work now hangs in the Cowen Gallery at the State Library of Victoria.

Mme Mouchette relocated her studio to 77 Collins Street West and the popular exhibitions of works by her pupils were attended by Lady Loch, wife of the Governor Sir Henry Loch, who presented silver medals to outstanding students.

In April 1883, M. Mouchette had been appointed chancelier substitué du consulat de France (Acting Consul) at the French Consulate in Melbourne, but unfortunately his tenure was brief as he died suddenly on 10 October 1884.

The death of M. Mouchette altered the circumstances of the two sisters, resulting in Mme Mouchette purchasing the school ‘Oberwyl’ in Burnett Street St. Kilda in 1885 for the education of young ladies. In the Argus newspaper of 12 August 1889, there was an announcement that the President of the French Republic had conferred on Berthe Mouchette the decoration of the Palmes académiques in recognition of her ability as an artist and her contribution to higher education.  At ‘Oberwyl’, a meeting of prominent Melburnians was held on 6 June 1890, and the Alliance Française was born in Australia.

The Great Depression hit Australia in the 1890s and boarders had to be withdrawn from ‘Oberwyl’ school; ‘Oberwyl’ closed in July 1892 and the building and contents were auctioned. The sisters moved to Adelaide and in 1893 were tutoring the children of politician E. W. Harker. They resided in Aldgate, an outer suburb of Adelaide, and gave painting and drawing classes at the Strathalbyn Institute. During this period they joined the Theosophical Society

In 1900, Mme Mouchette and her sister travelled to India journeying from south to north. In Benares they attended a grand session at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. By 1903 they were in Bombay and, early in 1906, were back in Adelaide, resuming classes at the  Strathalbyn Institute. They opened a studio in the Adelaide Steamship Buildings in 1908 and were then living at Mylor.

After the outbreak of World War, the sisters travelled to Paris in 1915 to nurse the wounded soldiers in one of the hospitals. After Mme Lion contracted an infection they returned to Adelaide, where they opened a studio in the National Bank Chambers in William Street. By 1921 they were residing at ‘Duncan Cottage Homes’ in Rose Park.

After the end of the war a number of French villages were ‘adopted’ by cities in Australia. The village of Dernancourt in the Somme was adopted by Adelaide, and Mme Mouchette and Mme Lion worked to raise funds to help in the rebuilding of the almost completely destroyed town.

On 3 May 1922, Marie Lion died aged 67, and Berthe Mouchette returned to Paris the following year. She moved to a retirement home in Normandy at Breteuil-sur-Iton, where she died on 20 June 1928 aged 82, and is buried in the local cemetery.

Image:
Author: John Drury, Melbourne, February 2018

References:
Alliance Française, Paris, www.alliancefr.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=221, accessed 2015.
Barko, Ivan, 1999, ‘The Foundation and Early History of the Alliance Française of Sydney’, in Explorations, no 26.
Comettant, Oscar, 1890, Au Pays des Kangarous et des Mines d’Or, Paris, Librairie Fischbacher.
Comettant, Oscar, 1980, In the Land of Kangaroos and Gold Mines, trans. Judith Armstrong, Melbourne, Rigby..
Drury, John, 2015, ‘Berthe Mouchette and Marie Lion’, in French Lives in Australia, eds Eric Berti and Ivan Barko, pp. 129145, Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd.

Keywords: Berthe Mouchette, Alliance Française de Melbourne, Oberwyl, Marie Lion, Victorian Academy of Arts