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
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?