Lydia Corbett née Sylvette David
IN MOST WAYS MY CHILDHOOD WAS VERY ORDINARY. LIVING IN WEST LONDON DURING THE 1970S, I HAD A SISTER, A BROTHER ON THE WAY, AND MY STEP-FATHER WENT TO WORK IN THE CITY EVERY DAY.
My mother, however was different. Our home was tastefully decorated with antiques, French lace, Japanese materials, worm-eaten crucifixes and old gilded mirrors. Her paintings were everywhere. She dressed in long skirts and Victorian blouses in crisp white, with lacy cuffs and collars or wore her favourite tartan kilt and a black top. Her hair was long and blond, her neck adorned with hippy, seeded necklaces that swung invitingly as she walked.
I remember a day in 1973 that gave me the first inkling that mum had a story like no other. The Italian TV came to interview her as Pablo Picasso had just died. All the old photos came out of the dusty leather suitcase, and the story was re-told. I had of course heard the tale and didn’t take much notice of it – I thought everyone experienced a ‘Picasso moment’ in their lives.
Years later, I wrote a book on my mum’s whole life, at her request. It’s called ‘I Was Sylvette’ and in it you can read the full story.
Born in 1934 she was called Sylvia Jocelyn David – Sylvette. Defying convention, her English mother, a great painter, took her away from her father, a painter and Parisian gallery owner, to live free on a naturist island. Fleeing during the war to hide in the Drôme mountains from the Nazi peril, Sylvette faced a different ordeal. Post-war, she travelled to England to attend the notorious free-school Summerhill, in Suffolk, learning only how to smoke and make love. Leaving 2 years later, boyfriend in tow, Sylvette returned to her mother, Honor, in the pottery town of Vallauris, France.
She was a stunningly beautiful 19-year-old but painfully shy. Picasso, whose studio was in the town, spotted her walking and sketched her from afar in 1953, finally meeting her when he bought a couple of chairs that her boyfriend Toby had made. He formally asked her to sit for him in 1954, which she felt honoured to do. So began an intense 3 months, where sixty pieces of work were completed; Picasso expressing his curiosity in painting and sculpture about this quiet young woman, trying to discover her silent secret.
Picasso gave the timid Sylvette the wonderful gift of self-confidence, through his gaze and appreciation of her, mentioning also that the route to happiness was through creativity. His words stayed with her and after an epiphany, aged 26, she changed her name, finally re-marrying and becoming Lydia Corbett – a prolific painter in her own right. Francis Kyle, now retired, who exhibited her for 30 years in his Mayfair gallery, says of her: ‘Lydia Corbett’s spontaneous, eccentric and unpredictable charm is so much a part of her enduring appeal.’
Lucien Berman, critic, writes:
Lydia Corbett’s individual sensibilities meld the aspirations and anxieties of her age. In her domestic interiors there is a search for a spiritual home, a place beyond. A painting of a country kitchen, the cat on the table, the vase of flowers, in every girl or boy she paints, there is an otherworldly shadow or wraith and the work attests to absent paterfamilias. The painted interiors carry with them the impulse to be elsewhere. There is always a further view that hangs in the balance, which depends on the will as much as memory. Her watercolours at their best are always offering up to seemingly incompatible voices, or points of view. What appears effortless is not without emotional suffering or pain. To be at work in her studio for Lydia Corbett is to be free again, free to paint what she wishes, and free to cease to be waiting for others. Lydia Corbett is absorbed to work on the mysterium tremens of painting, as Miró once said: ‘La souffrance, c’est le sacrement de la vie.’ The oils that Lydia Corbett has painted in the last decade might appear predominantly expressionistic in influence. Art, like life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Sylvette David for Picasso was his last, unobtainable love. For me, Corbett’s recent self-portraits go further than those of Dora Maar. It was Maar who said, ‘After Picasso-only God’. Søren Kierkegaard wrote: ‘The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.’ Likewise, the function of art is not to influence the artist but rather to change the nature of the one who sees.