Lydia Corbett, formerly Sylvette David, is Picasso’s Girl With The Ponytail. She appears in over over 60 of Picasso’s works including the famous Chicago sculpture. After seeing Sylvette’s iconic high ponytail in the south of France in the summer of 1953, a young Brigitte Bardot renounced her natural brown hair, dying it blonde to adopt Sylvette’s signature look.
Corbett was 19 years old when she was spotted by the 73 year old artist. She spent the summer months sitting for him during his split with Françoise Gilot and the start of his romantic involvement with Jacqueline Roque. She didn’t take up art herself until the age of 45 and since then the French artist has exhibited in London and her adopted home of Devon. Her solo retrospective at the Mall Galleries London continues to Sunday 7th October. Here we find out about her creative life and her relationship with Picasso.
You were 19 when you met Picasso, and he was 73. How did you meet?
“I was living in Vallauris, on the French Riviera [famous for it’s ceramics and pottery industry]. I had a boyfriend, Toby, who made metal sculpture and chairs and we had a workshop nearby. One day, I was sitting on a terrace, where they dry pots, with friends. I was sitting there smoking, drinking coffee and Picasso saw me.
“A group of us were walking past his studio and Picasso put a picture over the wall of a girl with a ponytail. We all rushed into his studio. He said, “I want to paint Sylvette. I said, “Yes, I’d love to pose for you.” And another girl said, “And me, will you do me too?” He said, “Oh no, I only want to do Sylvette.” I was thrilled, I couldn’t believe it, because he was so famous already. He was 73 in ’53 and I was 19.
“So it was agreed. I would say to Picasso, “I’ll come on Wednesday.” When he saw me down the road, he would shout, “Hello, come on! Don’t be in the workshop!”
“When I sat for him, he was quiet. He painted and drew, and then I went home. We didn’t even have a cup of coffee or tea.
“When I sat in his studio it was like a meditation. Sitting in the quiet, no noise. We smoked cigarettes. He, Gitanes, and he bought me some Balto, an American tasting cigarette which I used to smoke. We would both smoke and not talk. I enjoyed it. I looked outside, the view, to the hills of Vallauris and the smoke from the potteries, the ducks and pigeons flying outside. It was amazing.
“He wanted me to pose in the nude, but I said no. He said, “Would you like to pose for me?” I thought if he pays me, he’ll say, you have to undress. So I said, “No thank you.” The next day I came in to the studio, and there was a portrait of me with naked breasts. He said, “I hope you don’t mind…” thinking I would say, “Of course I don’t mind!” Most girls wouldn’t mind and would pose for him in the nude. Not me!
Did he flirt with you?
“He never flirted, really. He tried to play games. One day he took me upstairs and there was a little room, just like Van Goghs painting. He jumped on the bed and invited me to join him, and I thought, “I’m not jumping on the bed too!”. He was very agile – the bed was quite high and he jumped right on to it. I thought, “Oh my God!” I was amused, but I thought no no, I’m not going to play games.
Then he took me downstairs and we went back to posing.
Another day he took me to a huge barn at his house with a big very old Hispano-Suiza car. It had a separate chauffer place, so you got in to the back. Picasso went in first and sat in the corner, as if we were going on a journey. I thought, “Oh dear, what do I do now? Shall I sit, or should I not?” I always ask my inner voice. It said “Oh don’t be silly, let’s go in!” So I went in and sat next to him. Actually he was lovely. Like a father figure. He was friendly and he talked about this and that, and the people he met in Barcelona. But unfortunately I was too shy to say, “I can’t hear what you’re saying!” He had a very strong Spanish accent, and I couldn’t say, “Could you repeat what you said?” It was quite tricky! But he didn’t mind, he talked and talked, and we sat there as if we were on a journey.
When you saw the paintings he had done of you, how did you feel?
“I’m really touched by his portraits of me. I love funny faces. I do it myself now, it’s such fun. To put the nose sideways, two eyes on the same side. It’s really fascinating. The more you look at Picasso, the more you see.
“I was invited to Bremen in Germany to see sixty paintings of me collected from all round the world. It was fascinating to go there and see my face on the walls. I was in tears. It was very moving and amazing to see them all.
How do you feel that people describe you as Picasso’s Muse?
“I don’t mind being called the muse. I’m proud of my work and Picasso mixed with me, I don’t mind a bit. I love Picasso. I like to thank Picasso because it’s a gift he gave me. Being a muse to him was eternal. I’m an eternal muse!
People love the story. It would make a great film.
Your parents were both artists, why do you think there was such a long gap in between sitting for Picasso at age 19 and taking up painting at age 45?
“All the pains of life! I don’t regret anything. I was married, had children, divorced, married again, another child.
“I’ve been painting since I was 45. When my youngest son went off to school I started to paint madly. I met a young Dutch woman who painted with me. And a friend of mine who was a doctor, taught me about oil paint, to see shapes the oil and turpentine made. He told me Leonardo da Vinci did that. That’s how I started, really, it’s interesting. Lots of people do that. Seeing shapes, seeing the colours, people. He inspired me so much.
What else are you inspired by?
“I am inspired by all sorts of things from my past. A lot about Picasso, of course, because I remember him so well now, in my old age. I think of him a lot. He gave me so much. He has opened doors for me all my life.
“I always have a sketchbook wherever I go. I sketch, and write things and I have a suitcase full of little sketchbooks and diaries. I love drawing so when I want an idea I look at those.
“There are no end of paintings, just not enough time to do it all!
“I paint from my heart. And memories. Especially as now I’m 83, my sight is blurred. I’m getting used to it. What I can see is the colours, the sun, the leaves, flowers. I can see everything, but it’s in a sort of smokey world. Everything is interesting. I see a lot of shapes now. As my vision is simpler, it makes the shapes even more interesting.
“My father inspired me. He told me that I had a gift and I should use it. I missed my dad all my life, I never lived with him. He had a gallery in Paris, and he loved art. He told me I had a gift and bought some of my work and encouraged me that way. It was fantastic.
“My mum was a very good painter. She would use her fingers and a palette knife. She did portraits and landscape and the sea. She was very brilliant. But she didn’t teach me. I was little when I saw her painting. Later in the war she couldn’t paint much because there was no money, no food, she had to look after us. She had no money to buy oils. She did do some painting, and she paid a doctor with a painting.
Do you have a creative ritual? When you start a painting is there something you do every time, or is there a place you go?
“Often I have an idea when I get up in the morning. It comes and, quick, I must do that. I did two paintings of Jacob and the Angel lately. It came to me like that.
“I love sitting in my studio and I wait for inspiration. I listen to my iPad, I like music but I don’t paint the music. I like my own silence.
“I listen to spiritual talks. I’m interested in changing my way of being, becoming less self centred, more gentle and kind and not criticise people. I’ve always liked truthfulness and I love people.
“Before I painted, I had the ideas in my head and, funnily enough, now when I shut my eyes, I see painting. I see faces with my eyes shut. My daughters. I see their smile. I have lots of ideas all the time. I see shapes, I’m not abstract, but what I do is getting much more simple. The charcoal is brilliant, it’s neat lines, very sharp, black and white and then colour with it. Even without colour it’s colourful. I love black. I love black and white together it’s brilliant.
“And grey. Picasso painted me grey. Maybe it was because of Françoise Gilot leaving. The grey colour, is it sad? I think not, I am blonde, I had a grey coat. Blonde looks good in grey. He painted that which was a plain colour. But I don’t think he was sad with me. Just the colour grey. A lot of grey, or purple or green, a few more grey ones.
Can you tell us about the work for the show?
“I’ve made lots of work, like Picasso in some ways, some are like cubism, and some are not. There’s works in charcoal: I’ve done a girl kissing the hand of god. It’s called Inner Peace, it’s all in charcoal, she’s looking up, there’s a hand coming down. All around it is gold leaf. It’s really beautiful, it just came out like this. I’ve done lots of Picasso and I, and flowers, and still life. I use watercolours, oil. There are ceramics, and sculpture.
“I’m very curious to see what people will say.
“There is an installation by my daughter Isabel, with me and her talking about writing my biography (add link) where people can go in and sit and listen to Isabel interviewing me.
“There’s a bit of film about Picasso and I, a bit of the story. Nicely done, I’m delighted to see all my work in one space. A lot of work, because I never stop.
The creative act
“I think it is like mediation, when you’re an artist, when I sit in my studio, I’m so happy and I go somewhere else. I’m not where I am, quite. It’s a dream, it’s like prayer because things that come out from inside come out from the canvass and you never know what will come out.
“I love it, I can’t even describe the painting. It just comes out. I’ve done lots of girls with ponytail. And Lydia. I put two faces together. Sometimes Picasso is there. And I am there.