Picasso's Most Prolific Muse on What He Taught Her

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College, Andre Villers© Endeavour London, Corbett Family Archive

“Things tend to come out in old age – this is the fruit of my life,” says Sylvette David about a new book which traces her remarkable story

“I was very much in awe of [Pablo] Picasso before I met him. Everybody was. He was the King of Vallauris! At that time [the spring of 1954] he was incredibly famous and I was unknown – just a shy, 19-year-old girl. Our meeting was completely by chance. I suppose he saw something in me… I’m sure that he saw I was fragile, and that I had been hurt in my youth. But I think he also recognised that I was strong and would eventually become an artist in my own right.

“In his presence, I learned how to be confident. He made me feel beautiful and gave me such love – but without words. Most of our sittings together would be in total silence. He would sit there, staring at me with those big black eyes, contemplating and drawing. It didn’t bother me at all – I was in heaven. I would usually pose for him for two or three hours at a time, and then we would often go for a walk. We never stopped for coffee or tea, but we did enjoy smoking cigarettes. Toby [Jellinek], my boyfriend at the time, would often come to Picasso’s studio with me. He kept a very close eye on the sittings! In the end, they began talking to each other and in fact, Picasso even let Toby [a burgeoning designer] cut a metal sculpture for him, which is now exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. He was incredibly thoughtful like that.

“One of my favourite portraits he did of me is the oil painting, Sylvette [1954] that was displayed [in the 2014 show, Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette: Picasso and the model] at the Kunsthalle Bremen. I love it because I really feel that he captured my spiritual side, which I only truly connected with some years later at the age of 27. But then, I’ve always felt that artists are very close to God.” 

It was only after Picasso’s passing in 1973 that Paris-born Sylvette David – who now goes by her married name, Lydia Corbett – first discussed her remarkable encounters with the Spanish icon, some 20 years after she became his muse and was immortalised in more than 40 Cubist works. Now aged 82, and a celebrated artist in her own right, Corbett has decided to detail her remarkable life story in a compelling memoir titled I Was Sylvette. “For the past five years or so, I have been recalling my memories to my daughter Isabel [Coulton], who has compiled the book for me from my home in Devon,” she notes.  

Lyrical and admirably honest, the book traces her turbulent personal journey from adolescence to marriage, motherhood, spiritual enlightenment and creative fulfillment, and is enlivened with candid family photographs, alongside artworks by Picasso and Corbett herself. “Things tend to come out in old age – this is the fruit of my life,” she adds. “Right now, I’m having a harvest festival.”

I Was Sylvette: The Story of Lydia Corbett by Isabel Coulton is published by Endeavour London, and is out now