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Painter, Mother, Muse to Picasso

Lydia Corbett née Sylvette David


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.

The Artist Lydia Corbett

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.


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