A Chat with Lydia Sylvette Corbett
"The curators asked her, 'Why no mouth?' She replied airily,
'Oh, I didn't speak much.'"
- Lydia, when viewing her Picasso portraits in San Antonio
Many people have many different views and ideas about Picasso, the man, the artist and the myth. Ask his wives, particularly Francoise Gilot, and you will get a very different portrait to the one his friends or associates might speak of. Quite often, the perception of an individual person is down to the perceiver themselves, and the summarisation might be made up entirely of what traits came forth in your particular relationship with the subject. In the case of Picasso, he was many things to many people; superstar to the world media, genius to his army of admirers, handy PR man for the Communists, complicated man to family and friends. To Lydia Sylvette David, now known by her married name of Lydia Corbett, Picasso was a warm, funny, fun and approachable man, an artist in the truest sense who later inspired her to take up painting herself. She met Picasso when she was 19 in 1953, and as luck would have it, he ended up painting her in a series of legendary art works the following year which have transcended their time. Indeed, Lydia, or Sylvette as the world knows her, has become a myth, a symbol in Picasso folk lore, and as we agreed in our chat, immortalised forever, rather like a goddess out of the mythological tales Picasso so adored.
As with much of Picasso's work, especially his truly great pieces, there is a certain magic to his Sylvette paintings, almost as if they could have been painted at any time in the past, any time in the future, or even on another planet. In the various masterworks, Picasso captures her innocence, her shyness, her unconscious mystery. No question, he is clearly fascinated with her, though his fascination is unique in the Picasso timeline. She was not his lover, though it remains a mystery if he wished to be so or not, and that perhaps explains why the pieces are so flattering. Also, Picasso clearly respected Sylvette; that much is clear from the way he elevates her in the paintings.
She sat for Picasso regularly between April and June and the results were monumental. Her boyfriend Toby came by too, and she has since noted he was not jealous of Pablo's gaze upon his young girlfriend, though many men would have been. Picasso, though, would not start working until her boyfriend left, and then the magic would begin. If Picasso was painting her to forget about his worries after the departure of Francoise, then she was not just a muse, but also a councillor, a silent presence who brightened his days and filled his mind with good thoughts, making him temporarily overlook his heart ache. Though many negative critics have done so, to overlook this work as a stop gap between wives and inspirations is doing the paintings a disservice; after all, they are wonderfully painted, fun even, playful and full of light. Though he did not paint her again and their friendship drifted away when he hooked up with Roque, these paintings deserve classic status, and Lydia needs to be seen as one of the important muses, even though they never shared a romantically intimate moment. It is for this reason perhaps, that Sylvette deserves even more credit. She enjoys an exclusivity in the Picasso story.
The fact that the pictures are not pained, tortured, contorted or emotionally charged ensures that certain people do not take them seriously; which is a shame, as they highlight the more loving, affectionate and positive aspects of Picasso's work. I feel Chrstoph Grunenbery, director of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany, who exhibited half the Sylvette works several years ago, hit the nail on the head when he spoke to the BBC in 2014:
“The idea that this series lacks emotional engagement is a rather superficial psychological argument. I don’t think you can reduce Picasso to a kind of flesh-eating vampire who feeds on other women and his subjects – it’s more complex than that. Maybe it was her resistance to be seduced by him that made him need to see her: because he didn’t conquer her, he needed to conquer her on canvas and on paper and in sculpture. But even in the very sketchy portraits, where he tries to capture Sylvette in just a few lines and strokes, there is always great painterly expression. So one has to be very careful not to be judgemental.”
Sylvette must have been a hugely important inspiration to the ageing Picasso. He sculpted her, painted her, drew her, and in every piece she is positive, full of life while still being totally still and impenetrable. ‘I had this gorgeous hair and, like Coco Chanel," she told the Mail a few years ago. "I used to tailor a man’s shirt or jacket to fit me. I was like an iceberg. You couldn’t get close to me. They didn’t dare come near me, the men. That was why Picasso was intrigued.’
The works were acclaimed upon being unveiled and Lydia became world famous, known as The Girl with the Pony Tail, inspiring the look of Brigitte Bardot, who wanted Picasso to paint her too. He refused of course, for though Bardot was a beautiful and fashionable girl of the time, she was no Sylvette in the eyes of Picasso. She didn't have the innocence, the quiet allure and the mystery.
Writing for Fosse Gallery in 2015, Anthony Sheridan put it beautifully: "Beyond her pale almost translucent skin, Sylvette was flesh and blood; she was bohemian and unconventional. Whilst reserved she was no stranger to love, and she refused to be either “a goddess or a doormat” in Picasso’s terms. She was not what Picasso was used to. Sylvette David was not a blank empty presence that he could project on to, that would have been without challenge..."
When she left his studio for the last time, Picasso said to Lydia, "Thank you for being here during my difficult time." Correctly perhaps, Lydia thinks she might have been a healing force between the two women in his life, soothing his pain in a challenging time by being straight forward in her reserved manner. Though she did not accept money, he gifted her with one of the portraits and handed her a book of drawings. One must agree, the painting was a much better gift than a mere pay cheque.
Lydia is 83 at the time of writing. I spoke to her one rainy day in April, 2018, gazing out of the window as she spoke of her first hand encounters with the most iconic artist of the 20th century. As soon as she picked up the phone I felt her warmth and positivity glowing out and heading down the phone line. She entered Picasso's life at a vital time - after the departure of Francoise and the children no less - and some say he found a kind of peace and comfort in the young girl's innocence and hopeful naivety. It must be added that Picasso created more works of Lydia/Sylvette than he did of any other woman in his whole life in one sitting. Certainly, he depicted Jacqueline more in terms of numbers over their twenty year relationship, but Lydia gets the most in one collection. Though some critics sideline these paintings, they are among my personal favourite Picasso works. They are uplifting, classical, timeless, but also mysterious, though they remain pleasing on the eye and seem to say something deep about youth. Lest we forget, Picasso was already in his early seventies when he sat down to paint the young girl before him.
Lydia took me back to that remarkable time in the mid fifties, in the hills above Vallauris, where Picasso had a villa where she encountered him over 60 years ago. Creating is about capturing something in that moment you are present; an essence, a feeling, a quality you cannot bring to life in any other way. Interviewing remarkable people like Lydia is also about capturing an essence of them and their memories. And when she told me about sitting for Picasso, I could almost smell the paint...
What was it like the first time you met him? He was already a legendary figure, so you must have been aware of his stature. Was it an intimidating meeting or was it more relaxed?
No, it was very relaxed. It was a little village in the south of France. I had a boyfriend who was a metal worker in a little shed. Picasso could see us because he had a studio further up the hill. I think he could see me going there to see Toby, my boyfriend, and he got interested in me. He knew my name, because he must have asked around. And then another day we sat on a terrace; the potteries have a big terrace where they dry the pots in the sun, you know. And I had friends who lived near that pottery, so we all sat on the terrace drinking coffee, smoking away. In those days you could smoke as much as you wanted. Nobody cared.
A bit different now then...
Yes! I loved that. Everybody smoked cigarettes. Anyway... So Picasso saw us. He came over his wall with a sketch of Sylvette, the girl with the pony tail. So that is how it started. He opened a gate and we all rushed into his studio and he said 'I want to paint Sylvette...'
Wow. Amazing really.
Yes and I was so amazed because I was very shy and simple. Not at all exciting. Funnily enough, I was very shy and I had my boyfriend, you know, from England, and so when Picasso said he wanted to paint me I was just amazed. I said yes, I would love it. Because he was very friendly and father like. He was not at all frightening. He was 73. You know, I don't know how old you are...
I'm thirty two.
(Laughter) Oh very young. So it is hard for you to imagine what it is like to be 73.
Yes exactly, my dad is only 64.
Yes so he is quite young too.
That is why I am so fascinated by the idea that you were so young and he was in his seventies when he painted you, and now you are older than he was at the time. He was already a legend by then. I suppose I am wrapped up in the myth of Picasso, but you were actually physically there.
Well I did not know much about him. I knew he was in the village, you know, and he went to the pottery where he did pots. But I did not speak. I was speechless, because he was a big man. Everybody knew that. I was shy, I did not talk much, but he didn't talk much either. What he did like was my hair, my long neck, and thin body. And I was shy. I think that is what he liked best.
What I like most about the pictures he did of you, is how there seems to be a lot of respect there. It is clear in the paintings.
Yes, you are right! That's it. I think he made me look like a goddess of the Greeks or the Egyptians. Like the Sphinx. Do you know what I mean?
Oh yes, definitely.
So I am really honoured near the end of my life, to have been made into a goddess in a way. (Laughter)
Yeah you have a point. It's like timeless myth really.
Yes, timeless myth, that's right. You know, so he did it and he said it was me. I was amazed.
How many pictures did you sit for?
Well I don't know if I sat for as many as he did, but I think he did more than I sat for. It was very quick, but he made sixty paintings, lots of drawings and sculptures. And the metal sculptures, Toby was cutting some of them out for him. I did not want to be paid as a model, as I was afraid that he would ask me to pose in the nude! (Laughter)
Yes, as soon as he hands the cash over he can pretty much do what he wants then can't he?
Yes, exactly. I thought 'If he asks me to do that I am not doing it.' Anyway, he never dared to ask. He knew I was very not touchable.
Maybe that is what he liked the most, that quality...
Well he did. I was a bit like a child. He loved his children. And they left him. Francoise and the children left him. So that is where I was, in the middle of that sadness. And there was another woman in the pottery, Jacqueline Roque, so I was kind of in the middle of all that.
You kind of arrived at a vital time didn't you?
Yes definitely, to cheer him up really, to make him forget about his troubles. An artist, you know, goes into another world. I am an artist now too, and I go into another world. I do not think about the problems of life, I really don't. I go to a peaceful state, dream-like. Life is great that way, total peace. You're creative too, you know that.
Certainly. It must be strange to look back on the Picasso connection, to be this kind of iconic symbol.
Well I am honoured. It is an honour. Thank God for everything, and now I am doing a big art show of my own, three rooms of my art in London. I do more oils than water colours now, because my eye sight is not so good. Creativity is the key to happiness. You agree don't you?
I do, definitely. It's also like an addiction. But Picasso must have influenced your art. It is there in your paintings for sure, the spirit of Picasso...
Oh, he has inspired my art a lot. A lot! It is all in my work now. I can see the influence. I loved the way he drew lines so quick, and clear, you know? Marvellous drawings. I do the same, a bit. Well, I try to. I am not as good as him! Picasso liked mythology; he loved the Greeks and all those people. He liked all those stories. Me not so much, I am more into spirituality, the spiritual world, I love God and Jesus, and all religions.
So faith and creativity keep you so positive as the years go by. You are still active even now you are in your eighties. And it's remarkable that in his seventies, Picasso was still as creative as ever before too.
Yes. I was there in 1954, and of course he died in 1973. I had two babies by then. Unfortunately I did not really stay in touch with him after. I saw him last in 1965 with my eldest daughter. I remember my daughter swinging him round in a chair. But he moved on with his wife Jacqueline and he was getting old.
I'm interested to know what it was like to have those famous black eyes staring at you while he painted you. I know he was not intense with you personally, but it must have been amazing to watch him studying you like that.
Oh no, he was not intense with me. He looked at me and maybe, I don't know, maybe wondered about me; what is she doing, what is she thinking and what will she do later? Because I was quiet and shy. I spoke about it all with my daughter, I spoke into a little machine and she recorded me, and it was quite emotional, you know.
Does that often feel like a different life to you, almost like a different person?
Yes, because when you are 83 you are not 19 anymore, but you know, young people, they do not think that far away do they? They do not see the future. They live day by day... that's how I lived. Thirty is a nice age, but fifty is better. You have that to look forward to!
GET THE BOOK HERE: