‘I wasn’t frightened of him’: when Picasso met Sylvette

Pablo Picasso And His Model Sylvette David
Pablo Picasso And His Model Sylvette David - PAGES Francois

In the spring of 1954, a 19-year-old girl named Sylvette David was sitting with friends on a wall in the small Provence town of Vallauris when a short, bullish-looking man leaned out of the window of a nearby artist’s studio, holding up a portrait he had drawn of her. The man was Pablo Picasso, then 73-years-old.

“It was an invitation,” says Lydia Corbett, the woman who was once – and will forever – be known as Sylvette, and who is now Picasso’s last surviving model. “I think he must have been watching me. In those days, I was very shy and never smiling. People would say, ‘Why are you so serious?’ It was because I didn’t know about life.” She laughs. “Now I smile all the time!”

It was an invitation she accepted, and that would change her life. Over the course of the three months following that encounter, Picasso would produce some 60 works including drawings, paintings and sculptures of the model who became known as ‘the girl with the ponytail’ – the most concentrated series of works that he produced of any model in his lifetime.

Lydia Corbett is an artist herself, who lives in a small house in a village on the edge of Dartmoor.  You pass through a wooden arbour into a garden blooming with Japanese anemones and yellow morning glory. Inside, her paintings cover every inch of the walls, and her pottery stands on shelves and cabinets.

She is 89 now, speaking in a lilting French accent, long plaits where once there was the ponytail. Her vision is impaired by macular degeneration, but she says she still paints whenever the inspiration takes her: bold canvases bearing the influence of Picasso and Chagall, self-portraits, and religious imagery, of the Madonna and child, angels, the Last Supper. ‘My work is very inspired by God, especially in my older age. You go into another world, which is lucky, otherwise maybe I would be lonely.  My belief helps me a lot to surrender to peace and calm.’

Sylvette David, later Lydia Corbett
Sylvette David, later Lydia Corbett - PAGES Francois

Her spiritual enthusiasms are palpable. “I love all faiths,” she says, “They help me a lot.” In the Sixties she became an adherent of Subud, the spiritual movement founded by Bapak Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, who gave her the Subud name Lydia. There is a group in nearby Totnes that she attends regularly.  And in conversation, she talks of her devotion to Francis of Assisi, and the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.

On the wall is a sign inspired by Hanh’s teachings saying ‘Lydia’s Ponderings. Practice of Mindfulness in everything you do. Washing, walking, Waiting, Listening, Loving, Caring, Sitting in Wonder.’ A friend wrote it out for her in capital letters so she could read it.

She was born in Paris. Her father Emmanuel was French, an art dealer. Her mother Honor was English, an exhibited painter. She had little formal education. When the Germans occupied Paris, Lydia and her mother fled to the mountains. She would not go to school until she was eight, and later she was sent to board at Summerhill, the progressive school in Suffolk founded by A.S. Neill.

A wonderful man, she says. “He would say to me, you don’t have to go to classes. Everybody was free to do as they wanted. I learned a few words of English – nothing much. Meeting lovely people. But actually what I loved was Toby.”

Toby was Toby Jellinek, a fellow pupil, a sculptor, and a furniture maker. They became boyfriend and girlfriend, and would later marry. When she left Summerhill, Toby followed her to Vallauris, where Lydia’s mother was living, having separated from her husband, and where Picasso had his studio.

And so it began. Each day she would go to the studio and sit for two or three hours while Picasso worked. There was very little conversation between them. Picasso, she says, liked silence, and she was too shy to talk. He would simply work and smoke. “He had a pyramid on the floor of empty cigarette boxes – Gitanes. It was like an installation!” She laughs. “He knew about installations before anyone knew the word! He would laugh about it – look how many I’ve smoked! But he was very healthy, clean-shaven, very handsome, black eyes, and good brown skin. He was beautiful.” She laughs. “Wow!”

Pablo Picasso And His Model Sylvette David
Pablo Picasso And His Model Sylvette David - PAGES Francois

Sometimes Toby would come to the studio and he and Picasso would talk. Toby made some folded metal cut-outs to Picasso’s specifications, which Picasso paid for. “He said, ‘I could pay you as a model’, but I said ‘no, no – I love doing it for you.’ I thought if he pays me, I will have to get undressed, and I didn’t want to be tempting him in any way.”

“He did one painting without me, with my breasts exposed, from his imagination. He said, ‘I hope you don’t mind’. I said ‘no, it’s beautiful’. But I knew he was thinking that maybe I’ll say yes and pose for him in the nude! Now I wish I had because I would have a lovely painting to look at.”

Picasso, she says, was “a mystery. When I hear all these stories about him being horrible to women, I never saw that side. I was very shy and young in spirit and he never touched me or anything; he never frightened me.”

When she was eight, she says, she was abused by a friend of her mother’s. “It was horrid. I can never forget that. I forgive him now, but it made me frightened of men. So Picasso could feel that, I think, that I had been hurt. That’s why he was a very lovely man to me. He was never vulgar. I hate vulgarity. It makes me ill when people are rude.”

So no, not frightening, but playful, “like a little boy.” She remembers him once drawing on a spider on the floor, “and when he came back he had forgotten about it and jumped up with a shout ‘Ooh’. He did things like that, little tricks. He would play games, to see what I would do, because I was so serious.”

Picasso And Sylvette David, August 1954
Picasso And Sylvette David, August 1954 - PAGES Francois

“One day he showed me his bedroom – there was a chair, a metal bed, a window. It looked like Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. And he jumped up and down on the bed, and I thought, ooh, I’m not coming in here to jump on the bed too!”

“But he was a clown. Journalists and photographers would come to see him and he liked putting on funny noses and showing off.”

She posed for him at a time when he was separated from Francoise Gilot, his long-time lover and muse (who would later leave him),  and the mother of two of his children, Claude and Paloma. He was not yet established with Jaqueline Roque, who at the time was working in the Madoura pottery in Vallauris, and who would later become his wife.

Lydia was there on a day when Gilot and the children came to visit him. “He must have been very upset. He gave me a painting, a drawing and a book. And when I said, ‘Thank you for the presents,’ he said, ‘Well thank you for being there when I had a problem with my children and Francoise.’”

And that was it.

When later that year, Picasso exhibited his works on Sylvette in Paris, she became a sensation. She was on the pages of Paris Match, and Life magazine announced a new epoch in Picasso’s art, his ‘Ponytail Period’. At the Cannes film festival, “Toby and I used to go and look at the actors” – she had a chance encounter with a dark-haired Brigitte Bardot, who promptly dyed her hair blonde and adopted a ponytail.

Sylvette David
Sylvette David - PAGES Francois

Bardot asked Picasso to paint her, but he refused. He said, “There is only one Sylvette.”

Proposals for marriage arrived from as far afield as Colombia. “I had to tear them all up because my poor Toby was jealous.” There were offers from Hollywood, all of which she turned down, “because I didn’t want to be forced to make love to the director.

“One day at the Gare du Lyon in Paris a lovely man came up and said, ‘I’m Jaques Tati’. I didn’t know who he was. He said, ‘Here’s my card, come and see me when you can’. I thought, I’m not going to do that, so I missed my chance to do cinema.”

Is that a regret? “I never regret anything.”

She gave the drawing that Picasso had given her to her father who sold it on her behalf.  And in 1958 she sold the painting to an American man for £10,000 (about £300,000 in today’s money). She had earned a little from modelling for fashion magazines. But Toby was suffering from TB and unable to work and money was tight. It was enough for them to buy a flat in Paris, with some to spare.

“The man said to me, ‘When I die you can have it back’. But the poor man must have gone senile and forgot about me. The people around him took it and sold it to somebody in England. They let me see it once – they’re lovely people, and they’ve also bought my work.” The painting, I say, would be worth several million now. She laughs. “Isn’t that incredible!”

Lydia Corbett poses in front of her portrait "Sylvette"
Lydia Corbett poses in front of her portrait "Sylvette" - AFP

It is strange, she says, to think that the works Picasso made of her are now in museums and collections all over the world.

In 2014, the Kunsthalle in Bremen staged an exhibition of more than 50 of the drawings, paintings, metal sculptures, and ceramics Picasso had made of her. “The whole town was Sylvette, on the buses, everywhere!”, she remembers. “I thought, that’s amazing. It’s me! In the hotel was a huge portrait, and they put me in a beautiful bedroom. I was very happy.”

She has never been invited to see the enormous bust of her designed by Picasso and constructed by Carl Nesjär in 1968, which stands on the NYU campus in Greenwich Village New York. “It’s concrete.” She laughs. “It will last longer than me.”

She and Toby had one child together, Isabel, before divorcing in the Sixties. He went on to marry her best friend. “I was upset at the time, but I still love her.”

She married Rawdon Corbett, a civil servant, who later became vice-principal at the educational centre Dartington Hall. The couple had two children, Alice and Laurence. They divorced in the 1990s, but remain good friends.

As a child, Lydia’s father had encouraged her to paint, but it wasn’t until she was living at Dartington Hall that she started to paint in earnest, at the encouragement of a friend, which led to her exhibiting locally and then being taken up by a London dealer. ‘It was my memory of seeing Picasso work, my father’s love of art, and my mother’s paintings. Those three things were my inspiration.’

Lydia Corbett and her daughter Alice Corbett
Lydia Corbett and her daughter Alice Corbett

“I feel happy when I paint. It’s fun.” Next week a new exhibition opens of her paintings, along with her daughter, Alice, a potter and ceramicist. Lydia uses a knife to draw lines into the clay – faces, eyes, and shapes – and Alice paints the lines after the pot has been fired. ‘‘It’s a wonder. Because I can’t do pottery anymore. I did it when I was young, but my teacher would say I was hopeless.” She laughs.

She saw Picasso once more, in 1965 when she took Isabel, who was then two, to visit him. “Jaqueline was there. He was very deaf. But it was very sweet. He was in a wheelchair and my daughter made him turn around and around. And then I never saw him again.”

She thinks back on this, and to those three months, sitting with Picasso, so shy she could barely speak. “He had such a strong accent, and I didn’t dare say ‘What did you say?’ I didn’t dare! We sat as if we were contemplating together. You learn a lot when you don’t talk. And now I feel he is with me always, like a mystical marriage.”

My Life’s Inspiration: Pablo Picasso: Lydia Corbett: Alice Corbett is at the Soho.Home Studio, London SW3 — 27 September until 8 October