The muse who was inspired

She was Picasso's Girl in a Pony-tail. Forty-five years later, she herself is an artist.

When Pablo Picasso met Sylvette David, the beautiful 19-year- old ingenue, in Vallauris during the spring of 1954, something compelled him to invite her to be his model. What was it in this girl, with her hair pulled up into a dishevelled ponytail, her tanned and freckled face with its shy expression, that kept the interest of this notoriously demanding, easily disenchanted man? For every day throughout the summer into autumn she sat for him, and the result was the well-known series of paintings, Girl in a Ponytail, from Picasso's grey period.

It is a question that Sylvette, now 63, has pondered often, just as she has cursed many times that she never modelled in the nude for Picasso even though he suggested it to her. "One day, after I had sat for him some days, he produced a drawing of me naked and said: `I hope you don't mind, but I was intrigued and used my imagination'."

Sylvette, who changed her name to Lydia to escape the connection with Picasso's muse, is sitting at the kitchen table of the small house in Devon where she spends several months of the year - the others are spent in her native France - surrounded by Picasso prints (she sold the original he gave her as payment for modelling) and her own paintings and ceramics. She is a handsome woman who wears her fair hair long, and her girlish expression is recognisable in the first gentle, naturalistic drawings Picasso did of her and even in the Cubist interpretation of Sylvette in a Green Armchair.

She clearly enjoys the opportunity to tell a story which, you sense, she has taken out, polished and delighted in many times since that one summer when a man old enough to be her grandfather had his eye on her. "Picasso didn't analyse my appeal as a woman in words, although he did say several times that he liked my head, my neck and my hair, and he was fascinated by my ponytail."

He made it plain that he wanted to paint Sylvette when he popped over the wall one day with a sketch he had done of her, remembered from the brief occasion when she had met him. "My friend, more beautiful than me, asked if he would draw her too, and he was angry. His black eyes flashed and he said: `I only do those I like to do'."

Picasso had just separated from Francoise Gilot, who was living in Paris with their two children, Claude and Paloma, and he had not yet got together with the divorcee Jacqueline Roque. It was a time that he described to Sylvette as "very troubled, very painful" on several of the occasions she posed for his 39 pictures of her, and he "thanked me for being sweet and peaceful".

"I was so innocent and such a prude," she says with a giggle. Not the way women tended to be once they were caught up in Picasso's desires. Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, in her book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, described how the artist's last wife shot herself, one mistress became insane and another hanged herself.

Corbett (her married name) shrugs angrily: "This was not the man I knew. Picasso was courteous and sensitive to my feelings. He was quite beautiful and smelt nice - not of cigarettes or anything. And with me he seemed to find it easy to be playful. Quite often he would clown around like a little boy. I was fascinated to see such a lively old man. I loved Picasso. I still love him. I think about him every day."

It is legendary that Picasso's models had affairs with him but Corbett fixes me with a very serious look: "My claim to fame - I did not sleep with Picasso [although Francoise Gilot wrote that she was convinced Picasso used Sylvette to make her jealous]. Do I regret that? I am not saying so, but I do sometimes wish I had been less of a prude at the time."

He was probably propositioning her the day he took her on a tour of his house, through the many rooms of the pottery, into the little white-washed attic room with a table, chair and his bed. "He jumped on the bed and began bouncing up and down, laughing. I remember thinking, perhaps he wants me to play games like naughty children. But I didn't. And on another occasion he took me into a barn where he kept his car, an old Hispano Suiza, and we sat on the back seat like a couple going on holiday, chatting and laughing, and I wondered what he was about. I kept an eye on him - was he playing a game to see if I would fall in his arms? But I didn't."

All this is told with laughter, but in a quite dramatic change of mood she tells how Picasso was "like a godfather to me".

She sheds sudden tears, wiped hastily away, as she describes how he asked whether she had seen her father recently: "I said I hadn't seen him for 10 years. He did not live with my mother and he never brought me up, though he found me more interesting once I was modelling for the famous artist. Then Picasso told me he had had a letter from my father asking for one of his pictures of me. Picasso tore the letter up there and then. It was sweet and very protective of him."

Then the summer of 1954 ended. Sylvette left Vallauris and later came to Britain. She had two marriages which have both ended. She began painting 20 years ago, when her three children were grown up and since then she has had several exhibitions of her work. Her paintings came first; the ceramics followed.

So was it Picasso who inspired her to become an artist? "He said there was nothing like art to be happy, and he taught me how it was possible to see a subject in different ways, how to have fun with colour. It is wonderful to have been touched by Picasso, but also to feel I touched him."

Lydia Corbett's ceramics are on show at the Francis Kyle Gallery, Maddox Street, London W1

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor