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Christie's Sylvette David

‘I could never have been Picasso’s lover’

Christie's Sylvette David

‘I could never have been his lover’: Sylvette David on being Picasso’s muse
Lydia Corbett, then known as Sylvette David, was just 19 years old when she met Picasso in the spring of 1954. The artist was so enchanted by her beauty — and her now famous high ponytail — that he went on to make some 60 portraits of her

Lydia Corbett is describing the first time she met Picasso, in 1954. The artist bought two chairs from her boyfriend, a young furniture designer called Toby Jellinek, who had a workshop in Vallauris near to the artist’s Madoura studio. ‘We took them to his studio, we were so excited, and he said, “Come in, Come in.” Toby did all the talking, I was much too shy,’ she says with a laugh.

In those days, Corbett was Sylvette David, a 19-year-old art student who wore her blonde hair in a high ponytail. Picasso liked the look of it. ‘He thought it was like a helmet,’ she says. Soon afterwards, she was on the terrace at Jellinek’s studio when the artist turned up with a portrait he had made of her. It was the start of a friendship.

Corbett agreed to sit for him, and over the next three months she became the subject of some 60 paintings, ceramics and steel sculptures by the artist. Corbett recalls those days as ‘wonderful. He was kind and he taught me so much about art. I was a very grave child; he used to do funny things to make me laugh. He drew a spider on a piece of paper and put it on the ground and then jumped up in fright!’

At the time Picasso was embroiled in a bitter love triangle between his wife Françoise Gilot and his new lover, Jacqueline Roque, who worked at the Madoura pottery. Corbett suspects he found respite in those quiet sittings with her. ‘I could never have been his lover, I was too afraid of men. I think he understood I had been hurt in the past.’

When the paintings were exhibited, Sylvette became an overnight sensation and her home in Vallauris was besieged by photographers. ‘I used to hide in the cupboard,’ she says. She appeared in Paris Match and Elle magazine. Brigitte Bardot copied her hairstyle and the way she dressed; men sent her proposals of marriage; Jacques Tati asked her to be in his next film. ‘I was so timid, I found it all too much.’

Photographs of Corbett taken at the time by Picasso’s friend, André Villers, reveal a serious-minded young woman, uneasy with the role thrust upon her.

Born in Paris in 1934, the daughter of a French art dealer and an English artist mother, David grew up in Provence and on a small island off the Côte d’Azur. It was an unconventional life, interrupted by the Second World War.

At 16, she and her brother were sent to the progressive Summerhill School in Suffolk, in England, after her mother had read its founder A.S. Neill’s book, The Problem Child. ‘People used to say children went there as little devils and came out as angels. I think that is very true,’ she says.

The freedom suited her. ‘You were left alone, you could go to classes or not. I only went to [poet and singer] Ivor Cutler’s classes because he was lovely, very amusing, and he could speak French. We would have a cup of tea. I think he was supposed to teach me geography, but instead he played the harmonica and sang funny songs.’

She met Toby Jellinek at Summerhill, and he followed her down to the south of France where her mother lived, near Picasso’s Madoura studio. ‘Toby and Picasso used to talk while I sat on the ground playing with the grass,’ she says. ‘He made a marvellous picture of me doing this, which is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.’

As payment for the sittings, Picasso let Sylvette choose a painting. She selected a black-and-white profile which, she said, ‘looked most like me, like a photograph’. She later sold it when Jellinek was hospitalised with tuberculosis.

Picasso also gave Corbett a 1954 copy of the Parisian art magazine Verve — a special double issue which reproduced 180 of Picasso’s drawings executed in Vallauris in 1953 and early 1954. The magazine, together with a selection of photographs by Villers and Edward Quinn, will be offered in the Picasso Ceramics online sale until 1 July 2024. The sale also includes a ceramic bowl by Picasso that depicts Sylvette, and two paintings by Corbett. It is the first time her work has been offered at auction.

The first painting, a self-portrait, depicts Corbett holding a red poppy with tears running down her face. ‘I painted it in November 2022, near to Remembrance Day,’ she says. ‘I was thinking of my grandfather, who had been a soldier in the First World War, and who had to collect the wounded men from the battlefields, putting them onto carts. How sad war can be.’

The second, Sylvette Playing the Guitar for Peace on Earth (2023), references Picasso’s love of Flamenco music: ‘He liked the shape of the guitar and put many of them in his paintings.’ Each work is signed twice, with ‘Sylvette David’ (her birth name) and ‘Lydia Corbett’, Lydia being her spiritual name, given to her when she became a follower of the interfaith spiritual movement Subud.

Jellinek and Corbett split up in the early 1960s and she went on to marry Rawdon Corbett, an art student she met in Paris when she was 28. She followed him to England with her young daughter Isabel, and the family moved to Devon. Corbett has lived there ever since.

She began painting again at the age of 45, when her marriage broke down. She says her influences are diverse, encompassing early Italian Renaissance frescoes, the Romantic poet and painter William Blake and Marc Chagall.






  • Shapero Modern repräsentiert eine Vielzahl von talentierten Künstlern aus verschiedenen Teilen...
  • 26.06.2024 - 01.07.2024
    Auktion »
    Christie's London »

    Exhibition
    18 March – 17 May, 10am – 6pm
    Closed on Saturdays, Sundays, and Public Holidays

    Location
    Unit L20C, 20th Floor, Gaysorn Tower
    127 Ratchadamri Road, Lumpini, Patumwan, Bangkok
    10330
     



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  • André Villers (1930-2016), L’atelier de Picasso, avec tableau portrait de Sylvette, 1954. Gelatin silver print. Image: 10⅜ x 14¼ in (26.5 x 36.2 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2024
    André Villers (1930-2016), L’atelier de Picasso, avec tableau portrait de Sylvette, 1954. Gelatin silver print. Image: 10⅜ x 14¼ in (26.5 x 36.2 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2024
    Christie's London
  • André Villers (1930-2016), Sylvette, Vallauris. Gelatin silver print. Image: 15 x 10¾ in (38 x 27.2 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    André Villers (1930-2016), Sylvette, Vallauris. Gelatin silver print. Image: 15 x 10¾ in (38 x 27.2 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    Christie's London
  • Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Verve, Paris: Editions de la revue Verve [Tériade], 1954. A first edition double issue reproducing a series of 180 drawings executed by Picasso in Vallauris in late 1953 and early 1954. Its covers depict Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David) in silhouette profile. Folio (353 x 266 mm). Estimate: £5,000-8,000. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online. © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2024
    Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Verve, Paris: Editions de la revue Verve [Tériade], 1954. A first edition double issue reproducing a series of 180 drawings executed by Picasso in Vallauris in late 1953 and early 1954. Its covers depict Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David) in silhouette profile. Folio (353 x 266 mm). Estimate: £5,000-8,000. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online. © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2024
    Christie's London
  • Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David, b. 1934), Sylvette with Poppy, 2022. Acrylic and charcoal on board. 20 x 16 in (50.7 x 40.7 cm). Estimate: £1,500-2,500. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David, b. 1934), Sylvette with Poppy, 2022. Acrylic and charcoal on board. 20 x 16 in (50.7 x 40.7 cm). Estimate: £1,500-2,500. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    Christie's London
  • Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David, b. 1934), Sylvette Playing the Guitar for Peace on Earth, 2023. Oil on board. 39¼ x 27⅞ in (99.7 x 70.7 cm). Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David, b. 1934), Sylvette Playing the Guitar for Peace on Earth, 2023. Oil on board. 39¼ x 27⅞ in (99.7 x 70.7 cm). Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Picasso Ceramics until 1 July 2024 at Christie’s Online
    Christie's London