Picasso, the Girl with a Ponytail – and her house…

Recently I offered a French home to a few magazine titles, one of which has commissioned me – I’m shooting this impressive Brit-owned home in the Dordogne in May. But it reminded me of the first French home I shot for a feature, which was rather special…

I’m often asked how I find feature homes, and the answer is networking – plus luck. The owners of a lovely old Devon house that I was shooting for 25 Beautiful Homes said in passing, “You really should meet our artist friend Lydia. She lives just down the road…” So I drove a few miles to Lydia’s village. She was charming, and it wasn’t her house there that intrigued me so much as her other home – in France. Not just the house either, but more importantly, her background…

Sylvette's French home

Born Sylvette David in France, to an English mother and a French father (she re-Christened herself Lydia but for clarity I’ll stay with Sylvette) she was brought up in Southern France, and as a beautiful 19-year-old was introduced to Pablo Picasso in Vallauris. The rest is art history. Picasso was very taken with Sylvette, produced a great deal of work – drawings, sculptures, paintings – and his Paris exhibition in autumn 1954 thrust “the girl with a ponytail” onto the world artistic stage.

Typical of the exposure Sylvette received: magazine spread

Sylvette became a celebrity across Europe: I’ve seen the press cuttings, indeed I urged her to let me digitise them for security. From Stockholm to the Riviera she was written about, photographed, celebrated as Picasso’s great find – and with her looks she became almost as celebrated as the great man himself.

I’d never met anyone who’d known Picasso, let alone someone who modelled for him, and I’m unlikely to do so again. I thought this connection alone should sell the feature, and it did so readily. The Telegraph Magazine said yes – then got snotty about wanting their own photographer to shoot the pictures, which of course was unacceptable to me. Fortunately their loss was The Guardian Weekend’s gain: they snapped it up and were perfectly happy for me to do the full feature.

(Aside: features like these are nearly always done by a separate writer & photographer. I’m a bit unusual in doing the full package myself. Most home-interest editors find this convenient, but newspapers are more conservative and tend to doubt that one person can do both effectively. I’ve never had complaints about either my photography, or my writing…)

studio, with paintings by Sylvette's mother

France is delightful to drive across but it’s big: I usually take the train. So I caught the Eurostar to Lille, then the wonderful TGV whisked me down to Avignon, where I stayed the night. A short drive north to Orange, then to the village that had been home to Sylvette’s father, art dealer Emmanuel David, whose house she inherited.

A vintage maison de mâitre, Quartier de la Garde had complex, quirky interiors that were a delight to photograph: unmodernised, its traditional furnishings and soft wooden-shuttered light, its generous dimensions, offered character by the bucketful. Many walls – even doors – sported paintings by Sylvette (an accomplished artist herself, who has exhibited in London) and by her mother Honor Gell from Wiltshire whose pre-WW2 portraits are striking. Sylvette had hospitably invited me to stay there, so I was able to produce far morephotographs than I would normally shoot, at all times of the day.

Lydia today, painting in her French home

Even more enjoyable than photographing this beautiful house was the experience of interviewing Sylvette, who didn’t actually grow up there: “Sadly, my mother and father divorced before I was born, and for many years I didn’t really know him apart from one occasion in my mid-teens. But his new wife didn’t like my coming here, so further contact was curtailed. I never really knew this house until 1963 when I was nearly thirty and had my first child, Isabelle.” As part of a bohemian upbringing, Sylvette lived with her mother in the naturist community of the Isle du Levant during the war years, and the teenage Sylvette attended A.S.Neil’s progressive Summerhill School in the early 1950s.

Pablo Picasso in 1954 shows his famous model her portrait

This was interesting in itself, but talking with her offered a view not just of Picasso, one of the 20thC’s most eminent artists, but of other lesser figures who were nevertheless prominent in popular culture. I was fascinated by her telling me that it was her father who suggested she wear her hair in that elevated ponytail style which Picasso liked so much – a style imitated by many young women, including Brigitte Bardot: “I passed by her on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival,” she recalls, “when she was accompanied by Roger Vadim, and they both looked at me…. Bardot went to see Picasso at one time, and wrote subsequently in her autobiography that she’d asked him to paint her, but he declined because he’d “already painted Sylvette David” and we looked as alike as two drops of water!” So much for BB…

Sylvette visits Picasso some years later - with her daughter

Later, Sylvette did advertising work, and nearly made it into film: Jacques Tati approached her in a Paris street, but by her own admission she was rather shy and dubious about the world of cinema. She managed one film appearance in “Visage d’une Autre” by Marie-Claire Schaeffer in 1961 – and a brief career as a model in London.  Her inheritance from the Picasso experience included a painting and a drawing, sold long ago: “I loved them, but they had to be sold to pay for my husband’s treatment when he fell ill – and I bought an apartment in Paris.” One wonders what those pictures might be worth now.

My feature duly appeared in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine supplement, and earned me some money. But it’s good to do things that offer additional rewards. Last weekend I was photographing a modest suburban bungalow. Then sometimes I get to meet people who’ve done very special things and make me feel as if I’m brushing up against history. I love my job.

Lydia Corbett, née Sylvette David

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