Meet the Forgotten Female Artist Behind the World’s Most Popular Tarot Deck (1909)

As an exer­cise draw a com­po­si­tion of fear or sad­ness, or great sor­row, quite sim­ply, do not both­er about details now, but in a few lines tell your sto­ry. Then show it to any one of your friends, or fam­i­ly, or fel­low stu­dents, and ask them if they can tell you what it is you meant to por­tray. You will soon get to know how to make it tell its tale.

- Pamela Col­man-Smith, “Should the Art Stu­dent Think?” July, 1908

A year after Arts and Crafts move­ment mag­a­zine The Crafts­man pub­lished illus­tra­tor Pamela Colman-Smith’s essay excerpt­ed above, she spent six months cre­at­ing what would become the world’s most pop­u­lar tarot deck. Her graph­ic inter­pre­ta­tions of such cards as The Magi­cianThe Tow­er, and The Hanged Man helped read­ers to get a han­dle on the sto­ry of every new­ly dealt spread.

Colman-Smith—known to friends as “Pixie”—was com­mis­sioned by occult schol­ar and author Arthur E. Waite, a fel­low mem­ber of the British occult soci­ety the Her­met­ic Order of the Gold­en Dawn, to illus­trate a pack of tarot cards.

In a humor­ous let­ter to her even­tu­al cham­pi­on, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Alfred Stieglitz, Col­man-Smith (1878 – 1951) described her 80 tarot paint­ings as “a big job for very lit­tle cash,” though she betrayed a touch of gen­uine excite­ment that they would be “print­ed in col­or by lith­o­g­ra­phy… prob­a­bly very bad­ly.”

Although Waite had some spe­cif­ic visu­al ideas with regard to the “astro­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance” of var­i­ous cards, Col­man-Smith enjoyed a lot of cre­ative lee­way, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it came to the Minor Arcana or pip cards.

These 56 num­bered cards are divid­ed into suits—wands, cups, swords and pen­ta­cles. Pri­or to Colman-Smith’s con­tri­bu­tion, the only exam­ple of a ful­ly illus­trat­ed Minor Arcana was to be found in the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing deck, the Sola Bus­ca which dates to the ear­ly 1490s. A few of her Minor Arcana cards, notably 3 of Swords and 10 of Wands, make overt ref­er­ence to that deck, which she like­ly encoun­tered on a research expe­di­tion to the British Muse­um.

Most­ly the images were of Col­man-Smith’s own inven­tion, informed by her sound-col­or synes­the­sia and the clas­si­cal music she lis­tened to while work­ing. Her ear­ly expe­ri­ence in a tour­ing the­ater com­pa­ny helped her to con­vey mean­ing through cos­tume and phys­i­cal atti­tude.

Here are Pacif­ic North­west witch and tarot prac­ti­tion­er Moe Bow­stern’s thoughts on Smith’s Three of Pen­ta­cles:

Pen­ta­cles are the suit of Earth, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of struc­ture and foun­da­tion. Col­man-Smith’s the­ater-influ­enced designs here iden­ti­fy the occu­pa­tions of three fig­ures stand­ing in an apse of what appears to be a cathe­dral: a car­pen­ter with tools in hand; an archi­tect show­ing plans to the group; a ton­sured monk, clear­ly the stew­ard of the build­ing project. 

The over­all impres­sion is one of build­ing some­thing togeth­er that is much big­ger than any indi­vid­ual and which may out­last any indi­vid­ual life. The col­lab­o­ra­tion is root­ed in the hands-on mate­r­i­al work of foun­da­tion build­ing, requir­ing many view­points.

A spe­cial Pix­ie Smith touch is the phys­i­cal ele­va­tion of the car­pen­ter, who would have been placed on the low­est rung of medieval soci­ety hier­ar­chies. Smith has him on a bench, show­ing the impor­tance of get­ting hands on with the project. 

For years, Col­man-Smith’s cards were referred to as the Rid­er-Waite Tarot Deck. This gave a nod to pub­lish­er William Rid­er & Son, while neglect­ing to cred­it the artist respon­si­ble for the dis­tinc­tive gouache illus­tra­tions. It con­tin­ues to be sold under that ban­ner, but late­ly, tarot enthu­si­asts have tak­en to per­son­al­ly amend­ing the name to the Rid­er Waite Smith (RWS) or Waite Smith (WS) deck out of respect for its pre­vi­ous­ly unher­ald­ed co-cre­ator.

While Col­man-Smith is best remem­bered for her tarot imagery, she was also a cel­e­brat­ed sto­ry­teller, illus­tra­tor of children’s books and a col­lec­tion of Jamaican folk tales, cre­ator of elab­o­rate toy the­ater pieces, and mak­er of images on behalf of women’s suf­frage and the war effort dur­ing WWII.

Out­side of some ear­ly adven­tures in a trav­el­ing the­ater, and friend­ships with Stieglitz, author Bram Stok­er, actress Ellen Ter­ry, and poet William But­ler Yeats, cer­tain details of her per­son­al life—namely her race and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion—are dif­fi­cult to divine. It’s not for lack of inter­est. She is the focus of sev­er­al biogra­phies and an increas­ing num­ber of blog posts.

It’s sad, but not a total shock­er, to learn that this inter­est­ing, mul­ti-tal­ent­ed woman died in pover­ty in 1951. Her paint­ings and draw­ings were auc­tioned off, with the pro­ceeds going toward her debts. Her death cer­tifi­cate list­ed her occu­pa­tion not as artist but as “Spin­ster of Inde­pen­dent Means.” Lack­ing funds for a head­stone, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

Explore more of Pamela “Pix­ie” Colman-Smith’s illus­tra­tions and read some of her let­ters to Alfred Stieglitz at Yale University’s Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Library’s col­lec­tion.

via Messy­Nessy/Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Divine Decks: A Visu­al His­to­ry of Tarot: The First Com­pre­hen­sive Sur­vey of Tarot Gets Pub­lished by Taschen

Sal­vador Dalí’s Tarot Cards Get Re-Issued: The Occult Meets Sur­re­al­ism in a Clas­sic Tarot Card Deck

Carl Jung: Tarot Cards Pro­vide Door­ways to the Uncon­scious, and Maybe a Way to Pre­dict the Future

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (11)
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  • Sam Awry says:

    3 of Pen­ta­cles — Car­pen­ters build with wood ‚cathe­drals are built of stone . That is a mason , one who builds with stone .

  • Aquarius says:

    She isn’t for­got­ten and nev­er will be. Not sure why you thought that was the case? She’s the S in RWS.

  • PrinceofSneks says:

    Because it’s pret­ty much uni­ver­sal­ly known as the Rid­er-Waite Tarot. This is obvi­ous, Aquar­i­an.

  • Robert Alberti says:

    My daugh­ter’s tarot video, with music by our friend Ellis Delaney

  • Luna says:

    I get where Aquar­i­an is com­ing from. Myself and every tarot read­er I know from 25 years ago has always called the deck the ‘RWS’.… so I don’t find the state­ment (to be accu­rate) say­ing that it is a recent thing among tarot enthu­si­asts to call it RWS when it’s been hap­pen­ing for decades.

  • James D. Rogers says:

    Why not just ‘artist’ instead of ‘female artist’?

  • Jean says:

    Because … click bait.

  • Avril Brown says:

    Door­ways & Doors, Win­dow Frames & Post are Built from Wood.
    There is def­i­nite­ly Tim­ber used in Build­ings, includ­ing Cathe­drals.

  • Avril Brown says:

    It’s actu­al­ly Known as ‘The Rid­er Waite Smith’ deck, Prince of

  • Jennifer says:

    I have not been a tarot enthu­si­ast for many years. When I was (yes, prob­a­bly 25 years ago), this deck was known exclu­sive­ly as Rid­er-Waite. I had not heard of Pix­ie Smith until I read this piece. Thank you for shar­ing her sto­ry, Ayun!

  • Paulette says:

    Beau­ti­ful sto­ry and very inter­est­ing com­men­taries, thank you.

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