Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story

Pamela Coleman Smith: The Untold Story front cover

If you go by the number of times her work has been reproduced, Pamela Colman Smith is probably the most popular artist in the world. She is the one who created the artwork for the so-called Rider-Waite Tarot Deck; the claim that she’s the most popular artist comes from multiplying the number of Tarot decks with her artwork or a variant by 78, the number of cards in the deck. (The second-most popular artist would probably be Gustave DorĂ©, due to his illustrations for the Bible.)

Before I read Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, the best reference I had on her life was the introductory chapter of Volume III of the Encyclopedia of the Tarot by Stuart R. Kaplan. It’s no coincidence that this biography of Smith was also compiled by Stuart R. Kaplan, and is the same grand size as any of the volumes of Kaplan’s Encyclopedia. PCS:TUS weighs about four pounds, is about 8.25″ x 10.5″, and has 440 full-color pages. It’s a hefty book!

Over twenty pounds of Tarot love!

Kaplan’s company, US Games Systems, is one of the largest (if not the largest) publisher of Tarot decks in the world. Many of those decks are based on Smith’s artwork, which he explicitly acknowledges. I have a feeling that if Pamela Colman Smith had any kind of estate or heirs living today that he’d be willing to pay royalties on the decks he’s sold. Instead, he spent a large amount at auction to acquire a painting of Pamela “Pixie” Smith by Alphacus P. Cole. That painting hangs publicly in the US Games offices and is the picture on the front cover of Pamela Coleman Smith: The Untold Story as I show above.

The structure of PCS:TUS is the same as that of the volumes of Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of the Tarot: Out of the 440 pages, perhaps 40-60 of them are written text. The rest are full-color reproductions of Smith’s artwork, notes she wrote, and materials she published.

Before I read this book, somehow a totally false narrative of Smith’s life had evolved in my brain: that she lived a live of poverty; that Waite had taken advantage of her state to get her to draw her most famous artwork; that she was a lesbian who was denied an inheritance because her partner was not allowed to leave an estate to another woman. All of these are false.

Here are some tidbits I picked up from Pamela Coleman Smith: The Untold Story:

  • Smith was born in London to American parents. She traveled widely as a child, including spending several years in Jamaica. It was there that she picked up her knowledge of Anansi stories.

    The book includes a couple of reproductions of her Anansi stories from her own publications. They have a different flavor than the only other source of such stories I’ve read, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. Her book of Anansi stories is credited with being the first one to publish the stories in the style of a Jamaican speaker.

  • As an artist, she hobnobbed with literary elite of the early 20th century, including W. B. Yeats and Bram Stoker. Yeats was a member of the occult society The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Smith also became a member of the Golden Dawn, but there’s no evidence that she was ever initiated; she identified as a Catholic for her entire life.

    It was through the Golden Dawn that she met A. E. Waite, with whom she collaborated on the Tarot Deck. While it’s true she wasn’t paid much compared to what that work ultimately meant, neither she nor Waite had any idea of how popular the deck was to become. From her perspective, the work she did on the Tarot deck was a small part of her total artistic output.

  • Smith published two magazines, A Broad Sheet and The Green Sheaf. They were necessarily of limited circulation, because Smith hand-colored all of her artwork. They contained articles and stories written by both her and her literary friends. When I looked at the reproductions of her work, I felt a strange kinship: she was publishing the equivalent of APAs! I wonder what she would have thought of the APAs I wrote for and published in my fannish youth.
  • She published and illustrated other works as well. One of them, reproduced in PCS:TUS, was The Golden Vanity; this song is a staple at Ren Faires. Again, I felt a strange echo as I read the words of the song and looked at her illustrations, the music of The Crimson Pirates echoing in my head.
  • Smith was also a performer. She was known for her presentation of Anansi stories. She created her own figurines from her artwork and moved them about on a stage as she recited the stories in the Jamaican patois she learned in her youth. These performances garnered good reviews and were a source of income when her artwork wasn’t pulling in much money.
  • As I said above, it’s not accurate to say that she lived in poverty. Smith was a struggling artist, as most artists are to this day. To that extent her story is a familiar one: she made enough to survive and pay the rent, but her work never made her wealthy. She was recognized and had a few successful art shows, but of course that only goes so far. She died in debt, most of it due to not paying income tax.
  • Pamela Colman Smith had the soul of an artist. When she went to concerts, she would sit in a corner and draw based on how the music inspired her. PCS:TUS contains a few of these “music pictures.” The only composer that did not inspire her was Wagner.
  • Was Smith a lesbian? There is apparently no record of her having a romantic relationship with anyone. Perhaps she was ace, or perhaps her art was her passion. Or perhaps she was more discreet than many of her more flamboyant contemporaries.
  • As with many other artists of the time, her work fell out of fashion after World War I. People were simply no longer interested in the Victorian fairy style that typified Smith’s art. She continued to write and draw until her passing in 1951, but her works and talent fell into obscurity. If it wasn’t for the “Rider-Waite” deck, she might have been completely forgotten.

The pagan, occult, and magic communities owe a great deal to Pamela Colman Smith. Prior to the publication of her deck, most “pip” cards in the Tarot where simply repeated drawings of the symbols of that suit. She gave an individual identity to each of the Tarot cards. I believe reading Tarot cards would not be as widespread today without her artwork. Certainly a great many Tarot decks (including my favorite deck by Robin Wood are based on Smith’s designs.

As with Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of the Tarot, there’s nothing here about divination or interpreting occult symbology. If your goal is to learn how to read cards or understand the designs that Waite and Smith agreed on, there are better resources out there.

However, if your goal is to know the artist who contributed to our modern occult world-view more than anyone else than perhaps Gardner and Crowley (and I emphasize “perhaps”) then you won’t find a better resource than Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story.

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