Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith 1878-1951

If you are old enough to have picked up tarot before the turn of the century there is a pretty good chance that your first deck was a “Rider-Waite” Deck, published in 1909.  Originally published only as “Tarot Cards,” it was republished as “The Rider Tarot Deck” by U.S. games in 1971 which at length added the name of the project’s financier, but not its artist.

The deck is commonly referred to today as the “Waite-Smith Tarot” today in honor of its principal architect and designer, Pamela Colman Smith, and it is the most common Tarot deck in the world.  The abbreviation RWS is sometimes used by Tarot writers.  The clear core images are still seen in numerous adaptations.

The deck is a crowning contribution in Pamela Colman Smith’s remarkable career, but it is only one of a plethora of works. 

Smith’s was the child of an affluent American Merchant and Corinne Colman, the sister of American painter Samuel Colman, an iconic painter of the Hudson River School, best known for “Storm King on the Hudson,” now in the National Gallery in Washington DC.

Smith was born in London and grew up in Manchester, but moved to Jamaica when she was ten, travelling with her family between Kingston and New York.  She enrolled at the prestigious Pratt School, studying art under avant garde compositionist artist Arthur Wesley Dow, who emphasized art as individual expression.

Her style shows clear elements of the late 19th century romantic style combined with fin-de-siècle nouveau elements.  Smith suffered illness during her college years and her mother died in 1896.

She touched on the occult community in her earliest work.  She illustrated a book by Yeats at the height of his work with the Golden Dawn.  He would later be a contributor to her magazine.  She illustrated a biography by Bram Stoker, who was published in the UK by Rider which had purchased Philip Webley, a former British occult imprint. 

Smith also published some of her own work, including Widdicombe Fair, a set of song illustrations, and Fair Vanity.

Smith wrote two books of Jamaican folklore, Annancy Stories (1899) and Chim-Chim, Folk Stories from Jamaica (1905).  Her Annancy Stories include Afro-Carribean versions of the stories of Anansi, an Akan tradition trickster god. She illustrated Stoker’s final novel “The Lair of the White Worm” in 1911. 

Smith’s father died in 1899 leaving her without parents at 21.  She returned to the UK where she had grown up and began work with the Lyceum Theater Group managed by Sir Henry Irving with Ellen Terry.  Bram Stoker was the business manager at the time, and modeled Count Dracula on Irving.  Terry is supposed to have given Smith the nickname “Pixie.” 

In addition to her career in visual arts, She launched “The Green Sheaf” a magazine which included contributions from Yeats, A.E. (George William Russell) and others who were or would become significant literary notables.  The magazine was not financially successful and Smith founded Green Sheaf Press, focusing on work by women writers. 

Smith was initiated in the Golden Dawn in 1901 by Yeats, and met A. E. Waite.  She followed Waite to his Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn after the schism resulting from the falling out between Westcott and Mathers, including Mathers’ allegations that Westcott forged the order’s founding documents.

Waite commissioned her to produce an artistic Tarot Deck in 1909.  It is important to understand that the sophisticated techniques of reproduction which allowed Lady Frieda Harris’ art to be reproduced on cards did not exist or were prohibitively expensive in Edwardian England.  Colman’s strength at book illustration, which made use of clear line work made her ideal for producing playing cards which must be reproduced using fairly simple color process, with very limited capacity for shading.

Smith was a suffragist, supporting the right of women to vote, and member of the Suffrage Atelier, founded in February 1909 by illustrator Clemence Housman, and her brother Laurence Housman a playwright and novelist.  The Atelier donated art to promote the cause of suffrage, designing posters, banners, and other promotional pieces. 

Smith was exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz in New York in 1907 at gallery 291, the first painter exhibited at what was usually an avant-garde photographic venue.

Smith’s later life was not altogether fortunate.  Her fashion in illustration fell out of favor in the interwar years. and she converted to Catholicism in 1911 retiring to an arts village in Cornwall shortly thereafter, where she ran a vacation house for Catholic Priests. 

Smith’s romantic life has been a subject of speculation.  She has no known romantic connections.  There has been speculation that Nora Lake, her longtime friend, housemate, and heir was a romantic life partner, however though her circles included openly lesbian director and producer Edith Craig there is simply no evidence confirming the nature or existence of any romantic relationships.  Speculation balances her obvious preference for privacy with the pressures of the day which mandated it. 

Smith carved an unconventional and feminist career as a woman, author, and visual artist, and left as her legacy a deck which has served as an entrepot for hundreds of thousands of aspirants to the esoteric.  She died at the seaside town of Bude in Cornwall in 1951 with her heir Nora Lake.