Sylvette feature

In 1954, a series of portraits were reproduced in the French magazine Paris-Match which instantly astonished and captivated the world.

The portraits, mainly in profile, and in a muted palette of black, white and blue, showed a young giri with a high cascading ponytail.

The paintings were by 73-year old Picasso, the world's greatest living artist, and the model was 19-year old Sylvette David. Even with cubist distortions, it was clear that the young model was strikingly beautiful. But it was the ponytail with the thick fringe that caught and held attention.

The style was so young, so sexy and so new that immediately, every teenager wanted to look like Sylvette. Indeed one young woman copied the look so precisely that it catapulted her to superstardom. Her name? Brigitte Bardot.

But what of Sylvette David, the shy girl who posed for over 40 'Girl with a Ponytail' portraits? Now 78 and an acclaimed artist herself, she looks back on the magical chain of events that led her portraits to become among the best-loved and most reproduced artworks in history. Her new one-woman exhibition harks back to her youth and time with Picasso who, she believes, is constantly hovering over her and inspiring her. 'He is with me,' she says, 'although he is now in Heaven. A painter's heaven of course.'

Thanks to Sylvette, the old master pulled yet another trick from his astonishing repertoire and even he, by now long used to public adulation , was amazed at the impact the pictures made. 'So you see, art is stranger than life,' he remarked. But while Bardot became world famous, the girl who actually launched the tousled, thick-fringed, blonde ponytail on the world faded away and was forgotten.

This was largely from her own choice, it has to be said. After the portraits were shown, film producers and model agents beat a path to her door, but Sylvette's reaction was to hide away in cupboards until they had gone. 'I was just too shy and nervous in those days,' she says. 'Jacques Tati once approached me in the street, and I was so terrified I ran away.'

Her own story is romantic and bohemian enough and began in November 1933, when she was born in Paris to parents who were already divorced. Her father Emmanuel David was a successful art dealer and her English mother Honor Gell, was an artist herself.

Brought up mainly in France with her brother, at the age of 15 she was sent to Summerhill, the eccentric Suffolk boarding school founded by A.S. Neill on free and easy lines. Pupils only attended classes if they felt like it and very often Sylvette did not feel like it, although she says she enjoyed her two years there.

'I was very fond of Neill, who was already an old man by then, and I loved the music lessons given by Ivor Cutler. He sang with an old harmonica and his lessons were easily my favourite. The school was very small; only 60 pupils but I soon had a boyfriend, Tobias Jellinek.

'Toby became interested in metalwork and he was making avant-garde chairs. Together, we moved to Vallauris in France where Picasso had a studio. He saw one of Toby's chairs and bought it. At the same time he saw me, with my long blonde ponytail and asked if I would model for him.'

The ponytail was, she says, an idea of her father's. 'I had not seen much of my father when I was growing up but got to know him as a teenager. He had been to see a production of Antigone and was very struck with Antigone's high ponytail hairstyle. He suggested I might copy it, as he thought it would suit me. I'm not sure girls had worn this hairstyle before, but it soon became my trademark. I had very long naturally blonde hair and a thick fringe, and it was really that which intrigued Picasso so much.

'I obviously knew what a very great artist Picasso was, but at the time I was a shy, naïve girl and very afraid of men. He wanted me to pose in the nude but I refused as I was far too nervous and modest. He was hoping I would say yes but I never did. So he painted picture after picture of me with the ponytail, in a variety of styles from realistic to cubist to more or less abstract, and they were painted over a three-month period.

'Picasso wanted to pay me but I was so honoured and flattered to be this great artist's model that I never took any money. By this time Francoise Gilot, 40 years his junior and mother of two of his children, had left him, and he was living with Jacqueline Roque, who he married at the age of 79.' Sylvette is proud of the fact that she and the old goat, notorious for pouncing on his models, never became lovers, although he did try to persuade her into bed.

There is no doubt, says Sylvette – who still speaks in a strong French accent – that the portraits made the ponytail a popular hairstyle for teenage girls. Before, girls had copied their mothers with their rigid perms but here was something new, something that epitomized youth, freedom and rebellion.

The hairstyle inspired a pop song of the early 1960s: 'my Venus in blue jeans, Mona Lisa with a ponytail' and several books, including in 2003, the children's story Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail, by Laurence Anholt.

The blurb for the book goes: 'Sylvette was a shy girl with many secrets. She dreamed of being an artist, but no one knew of her plans. One summer, the famous Picasso came to Sylvette's town, Vallauris. Amazingly, out of all the people in the town, Picasso chose her as his model. Gradually, Sylvette came to view the famous artist as a father and told him of her secret ambitions. This is the true story of Sylvette David.'

Sylvette married her boyfriend Toby at the age of 21, and they had a daughter, Isabel, but the marriage did not last. 'When I was 27, Toby told me he had fallen in love with my best friend, and my heart was broken. I thought I could not live without Toby, but then I had a revelation that God loved me and I became a different person. I was transformed, but we split up when my heart broke.'

She had been given one of the ponytail paintings but had to sell it to pay for Toby's hospital treatment when he contracted TB. However, he recovered and became an antiques dealer in Twickenham, where he still lives and works.

At this time, she was not painting seriously but made another marriage, to Rawdon Corbett, who later became vice-principal of Dartington Hall School in Devon, another alternative establishment that closed in 1987. She fell in love with Devon and has made it her home ever since, although she has always retained a lovely old house in France as well.

She had two more children, Alice and Laurence and at the age of 36, formally changed her name to Lydia Corbett, the name under which she now exhibits. 'I was baptized as a Christian and decided on a change of name, but it was not until I was 45 and divorced again, that I became a professional painter. I kept the name Corbett though.'

Although she had started drawing and painting to while away the time during her stint of posing for Picasso, it took her some time to find her own style and confidence as an artist. 'I was bringing up children without an au pair but finally, I could not put it off any longer and knew that I had to become an artist.

'And yes, of course, I was highly influenced by Picasso. He taught me to be free and bold in my art and like him, I draw in Indian ink. Picasso loved animals, birds, peace and freedom and I now like to think he is always over my shoulder.

'When Picasso looked at me so intently I was shy and young and full of fears, but I have spent all my life thinking about him and how he changed my life for ever. For my new exhibition, I am revisiting my youth and imagining myself and Picasso as being young together. I know that he is pleased I am doing this and I feel so close to him.'

Sylvette, or Lydia as she is now more widely known, has reworked many of the ponytail themes for her new show. In recognition of this, she has also signed several of her new works 'Sylvette David' and these are very reminiscent of the Picasso paintings, done in black, white and blue and with Cubist influences. Other paintings are more dreamlike, with mystical overtones.

No longer shy and nervous, she now exhibits all over the world and has evolved her own, very feminine, dreamy and spiritual style. She says: 'I believe that painting is an expression of the inner self and I would never paint frightening pictures. I feel very happy when I'm painting and I need to paint all the time. For me, painting is a healing force and it has brought me so much. After a late start, I feel a day is wasted now if I don't paint.

'I feel that in my life God has smiled on me. I remain friendly with both of my ex-husbands.' She actually said 'all my husbands' but although Sylvette has only actually been formally married twice, she has also had several lovers and partners, hardly surprisingly, given her great beauty. At nearly 80, and a grandmother of eight, she remains as breathtakingly beautiful as when she first caught Picasso's painterly eye.

Lydia Corbett has lived a long and exciting life but now at last, she has reclaimed Sylvette, the original girl with the ponytail.