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  • Interview by Rosie Osborne

Sylvette David

More than 60 years later, the face in front of me is unmistakably that of the young woman who became Picasso's muse in the spring of 1954. Sylvette David's fine cheekbones, long neck and oval-shaped eyes are instantly recognisable. Aged 19, Sylvette met Picasso in a chance encounter in the south of France. He was immediately entranced and immortalised her in a series of paintings, ceramics and sculptures. The 'Sylvette series' is now seen as one of Picasso's most diverse and experimental bodies of work to be inspired by a single woman. Sylvette David now lives in England under the name of Lydia Corbett and is an artist in her own right.

When the 'Sylvette series' was exhibited in Paris, in the summer of 1954, the response was ecstatic. People were stunned by the versatility of the works, which ranged from detailed, naturalistic drawings to more experimental, Cubist depictions of Sylvette. Life magazine announced a new epoque in Picasso’s art: his ‘Ponytail Period’. A 20 year old and unknown Brigitte Bardot saw Sylvette walking along the promenade in Cannes and instantly adopted her style. ‘Sylvette-mania’ and ‘ponytails à la Picasso’ became an overnight craze and the shy and reserved Sylvette found herself at the centre of a media storm. I meet the muse-turned-painter in her home in Devon, to discuss her bohemian upbringing, how Picasso's wisdom changed the course of her life and how she found freedom of expression in her painting.

Sylvette David in her studio in Devon. Photo by Rosie Osborne.

You grew up in the naturist community of the Île du Levant in France. What was it like?

Yes! My mother was an amazing lady. Her father was a vicar in an English church, but she didn't want to follow any religion. She ran away when she was pregnant with me to live in a nudist colony on an island off the French Riviera. I was brought up wild, you know, walking barefoot, with my little brother. We swam in the sea and ran up the trees - we had a lovely childhood. There was a huge metal boat in the harbour which we used to swim in with the fish. We would play mermaids. That’s why I paint mermaids today. It was quite amazing - we were wild and free.

And your father?

My Dad, Emmanuel David, was a bourgeois! He adored art. He had a gallery on the Avenue Matignon in Paris - he discovered the artist Bernard Buffet and made him famous. My parents would disagree on things. My mother would never have a maid, and she used to tell my father ‘you like having maids, but they should be free ladies. You shouldn’t have a maid.’ She didn’t like that at all.

Watercolour by Lydia Corbett.

It must have been an incredible way to grow up...

Oh, yes. I’ve never forgotten it. Hippy life in the 1930s! My mother went to the island to heal herself after losing a three week old baby. She was quite the revolutionary; doing gymnastics on the beach in the nude, living totally free. Mummy sent us to Summerhill School, the boarding school that was set up by A. S. Neill as a democratic community. Students weren't forced to attend lessons and there were practically no rules. That's where I met my first husband Toby, so as you can imagine, I never studied much there! I fell in love instead.

How did your totally free upbringing go on to inspire your art today?

It's everywhere in my work. I love nature and swimming in the sea. That’s one thing I miss about the Mediterranean - the warm sea. I often paint fish, boats and birds.

Sylvette David. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

When did you start wearing your hair in a ponytail?

It was after my father saw a Greek tragedy and told me: 'I’ve seen an amazing girl in a play. She had a lovely, very high, ponytail'. Picasso was charmed when first he saw my ponytail: he looked upon it as a sort of helmet, like those of ancient times. He kept saying to me, 'I love the falling hair on your long neck.’ It's so lovely to be young. But I’m happy to be my age now. Life is different, you know.

How does it feel, talking about Picasso now?

For me, it’s easy, because I’m just talking about a part of my life that was spent with Picasso. It was sixty years ago now, but it feels like yesterday. I couldn't talk to you as easily about history, geography or maths - I couldn’t! Picasso is my subject and I was his muse. I’m always coming back to it. I love fusing his style and my style together in my painting. Knowing him was a truly wonderful experience that changed my life.

Sylvette. Pablo Picasso. 1954.

So how did it feel when Picasso chose you to be his muse?

Oh la la! Like…to be over the moon. Picasso, interested in me? Wow! I was chatting with my friends and drinking coffee on one of the pottery terraces in Vallauris. Over the wall, I saw Picasso holding up a sketch of a young woman with a ponytail. I realised that it was a portrait of me, painted from memory. Me and three of my girlfriends rushed to his studio. He said ‘Sylvette, I would like to paint you’. He embraced me immediately. My friends were sexier than me, more beautiful than me - that's what I thought anyway. But he wasn’t interested in them. I was very pretty, but very unsexy. People find it hard to believe, but it's true. I was actually terrified of men.

Pablo Picasso and Sylvette David. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

Portrait of Sylvette David. Pablo Picasso. 1954.

What was it like being inside Picasso's studio?

Fascinating. It was filled with bits and pieces, things that he had collected - stones, shells, all sorts of things. I used to sit on a rocking chair and look over the hill. You could see the whole of Vallauris from Picasso's window - the little hills, the orange trees, the jasmine. I would look at the chimneys and the potteries. I still remember the smell of the kilns and the mimosa trees. I just sat there dreaming. I was a real dreamer. I was extremely shy and wouldn’t talk to Picasso at all. I look rather serious and solemn in the portraits he painted, don't I?

Sylvette David and Pablo Picasso. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

Did Picasso talk to you while he was painting you?

No, he didn’t. He was very calm and focused when he painted. He used to say that he was very inspired by my face. One day, when I arrived, he had painted me nude, from his imagination. He said 'I hope you don't mind.' I think he thought that I’d see it and say ‘Oh, I’ll pose in the nude if you like.’ But I wouldn’t. No way. I think he thought, ‘wow, she won't even take her clothes off for Picasso!' Even though I grew up on a nudist colony in my youth, I never liked being naked. I always kept my clothes on. So I never succumbed. Picasso seemed to find it easy to be playful around me. Quite often, he would clown around like a little boy. I was fascinated to watch such a lively old man. I loved Picasso. I still love him. I think about him every day.

Sylvette with Picasso and his children Claude and Paloma. 1954. Vallauris, France. Photograph by Toby Jellinik.

Did he ever make any advances towards you?

Well, once, he took me into a little attic room upstairs. In there was a table, a chair and a bed. He jumped onto the bed and started bouncing up and down on it, laughing! He was 73! Incredible, isn't it? I thought, 'I’m not jumping on that bed!' It would make a good film, wouldn't it? Maybe someone will make a film about it one day. Isn’t it funny? I just wouldn't jump on the bed. He must have been thinking, 'how can I get this girl to laugh a bit? ' I didn’t laugh either! He often painted me without a mouth. He saw that I didn’t like myself and wondered why. He must have thought, 'what's happened to this girl to make her so reserved?'

Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

So, did he continue to charm you?

Once, he took me into the barn where he kept his car. It was an old Hispano Suiza, covered in dust. It was an amazing car. He opened the door and sat on the back seat. I hesitated, thinking, 'shall I sit in there with him?, and then thought, 'oh come on, don’t be silly.' So I did. He sat there talking about all sorts of things and told me stories. He told me that creativity was happiness, and that any object can be interesting - that they all give you ideas. But he never touched me. He knew that if he had touched me, I would be off, like a deer!

Few of Picasso's muses met happy ends. His mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and his second wife Jacqueline Roque both committed suicide. Did you emerge unscathed?

Picasso was always very courteous and kind towards me. He must have been a sensitive man - when people say he wasn’t, I don't agree. He was. People say he was selfish and mean, but that wasn't the man I knew. But of course, I had the best of things, because I wasn’t his woman. Often when you get too close to people, it doesn’t work. Life is funny!

Did Picasso ask you what you thought of his portraits of you?

Yes - he would often ask, 'do you like it?' I’d say ‘yes, I love what you do.’ At the end of my time with him, he invited me to choose my favourite portrait as a gift. He thanked me for being there for him during a difficult period in his life. Françoise had left him and I appeared right in the middle of that time. He used to tell me that it was a very troubled, very painful time for him. I consoled him really, with my youth. It is wonderful to have been inspired by Picasso, but also to feel that I inspired him. Life is full of surprises, isn't it?

What’s your fondest memory of your time in Vallauris?

When Picasso gave me a wonderful gift. He made a statue of me, with a key. I gave a talk once in a school about the statue and a little boy said ‘oh, it's the key to the heart!’ Wasn't that clever? But I always thought perhaps it was the key to something else. Keys are very symbolic. Why did Picasso choose to make a key? Did he unlock my confidence? What did I unlock for him? Life is full of coincidences.

Pablo Picasso and Sylvette David with Lady with a Key. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

Sylvette David. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

Why do you sign two names on your canvases?

Sylvette is my past. Lydia is my present. When I sign my canvases with both names, it’s my past and present together. Sylvette David is my French name - that's how Picasso knew me. In the 60s, I became a member of 'Subud', a movement which teaches spiritual training. I had a baptism and my spiritual name is Lydia. Corbett is my surname from my second marriage.

Do you feel as if your French and English persona are two completely different people?

Yes, they’re very different. In Vallauris, I lived with my fiancé, Toby. I had no money - my mother had no money. I was terrified to work. You see how immature I was...? I followed Toby like my saviour. I was so scared of being left on my own. I had absolutely no confidence. So Picasso, really, gave me a gift. He gave me my confidence back, and inspired me. He changed my life and how I looked at myself, and that slowly grew into what I am now.

Lydia Corbett's home in Devon. Photograph by Rosie Osborne.

What was it like to become an artist in your own right, free to express yourself?

Well, it seemed so natural to me to paint, because my whole family were artistic. My mother could have been a famous painter, she painted so very well. I never went to art college, I just learnt to paint by watching her. She was an impressionist painter and my Dad liked drawing these funny little comic style drawings, using ink. The fact that I paint with ink probably comes from him, and the spontaneous, colourful side of my paintings probably comes from Mummy.

Lydia Corbett's ceramic collection in her home in Devon. Photograph by Rosie Osborne.

Pablo and Sylvette. Lydia Corbett. Photograph by Rosie Osborne.

Lydia Corbett's home in Devon. Photograph by Rosie Osborne.

Do you remember when you painted for the first time?

Well, I painted in France a little when I was young - funny little drawings. I often drew horses. People say that young girls like horses. They’re like a male image, maybe. I don’t know. That’s probably what Jung would say. But I love horses. I didn't start properly painting until I was 45, when my son was five. He went to school and I was free to get on with my painting! It was very exciting.

There's almost a dreamlike quality to your paintings...

Yes, a lot of my painting is based from what I see in my dreams. I’ve had incredible dreams in the past. My mother appeared to me after her death, near my bed. She often appears when I have a migraine. When I came back from her funeral in France, I lay down with a migraine, and she came, with her beautiful blonde hair. She looked like an angel.

Watercolour by Lydia Corbett

Watercolour by Lydia Corbett

When do you feel the most free?

When I’m painting peacefully or meditating. What’s important in life is being healthy and happy inside. The rest really doesn’t matter. I didn’t feel happy until I had all of my paintings around me. They’re like my friends, aren’t they? They're my life story.

Lydia Corbett's work studio in Devon. Photograph by Rosie Osborne.

Sylvette David. 1954. Photograph by Toby Jellinek.

The full interview with Sylvette David is in Free Spirits, available to purchase here:

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