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Biography of Pamela Colman Smith


 

Creation of the Waite-Smith Tarot

 

Pamela Colman Smith in the attair of a Jamaican story-teller; photo taken by Kate Pragnell, in 1912.

Photograph of Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), taken in about the year 1911.


In early November 1909. an artist is at work in a small studio in London's Chelsea district  The 31-year-old artist, Pamela (aka "Pixie") Colman Smith, is a small, slightly plump woman of rather exotic appearance; she sits in the middle of the studio with paint brush in hand, mixing watercolors.  She works quickly for the time is short. The printer is waiting. A fully colored set of the cards must be delivered by the middle of November so that the complete deck could be published in December 1909.

She has been working on this large tarot card project for approximately seven months. The leader of her Golden Dawn group, Arthur Edward Waite, had commissioned her to illustrate a new pack of "rectified" tarot cards. In an article published in the December 1909 issue of The Occult Review (Volume 10, Number 12) entitled "The Tarot: A Wheel of Fortune" Waite explains His selection of Smith for this work:

I have embraced an opportunity which has been somewhat of the unexpected kind and have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set, Miss Pamela Coleman [sic] Smith in addition to her obvious gifts, has some knowledge of Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge, which are not in the open day.

Waite had some very strong ideas about the design of the 22  trump cards of the Major Arcana, but he was relatively unconcerned with the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana. Thus, Pamela had almost full creative reign with respect to those cards. Each card in the deck was to receive a unique illustration; in all, a total of 80 unique images would need to be created (78 tarot cards plus the designs for the card back and the nameplate).

Prior to this time, tarot decks had never been manufactured in the English-speaking world. Some tarot cards were then being produced in Italy, but the majority of the cards were manufactured in France, primarily in the southern French city of Marseille - hence the common name for these decks, the Tarot de Marseille.  Since Waite's "rectified" tarot does have a number of differences from the standard Marseille deck, I discuss these differences on a separate web page as follows:

Differences between the Tarot de Marseille and the Waite-Smith Tarot

Only one other artist had ever created a tarot deck with illustrations for all 78 cards; he was the unknown 15th Century Italian artist whose dazzling cards were zealously guarded by the Sola Busca family of Milan. In 1907, the Sola Buscas had finally permitted photographic copies to be made of the cards in their priceless deck; a set of these photos had been sent to the British Museum, where they were placed on display in 1908.

Because of the solo exhibition of her work at the Stieglitz gallery in New York in March 1909, Pamela could not have begun the tarot project until some time in April. Using information obtained from Japanese tarot expert, Koretaka Eguchi, who has made an extensive study of the Waite-Smith tarot, I believe that the cards were created in about a seven month time frame in the following steps:

1)  April through August 1909:  Pamela Colman Smith makes 80 pen and ink drawings of the cards. The size of her original drawings is 100mm by 174mm.

2)  September 1909:  William Rider & Son, Ltd. makes photographic plates or films from Pixie Smith's original line drawings. Several sets of reduced-to-card-size photocopies were made. One set was for Pamela Colman Smith to color. One or more sets went to Sprague & Co. for lithographical processing. Lastly, one set was used to illustrate Waite's tarot article that appeared in the December 1909 issue of The Occult Review.

3)  September through mid-November 1909:  Pamela Colman Smith hand colors all 80 card-size photocopies.

4)  November 1909: A. E. Waite's article "Tarot: A Wheel of Fortune" is printed for The Occult Review, December 1909 issue. A total of 13 black and white  drawings of the Waite-Smith tarot cards were reproduced from the photographic plates in three sizes: large, medium and small. Pamela's original drawings were of the large size. The Sun Trump is erroneously depicted as Trump Number XVIII.

5)  Late November through December 1909: Sprague Co. corrects the Sun Trump numbering mistake (card should have been number XIX not XVIII as it appeared in the Occult Review article). A small number of high quality, colored decks are printed with Tudor Rose backs (they were a special version meant to be exhibited and sold at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1909-1910. Eguchi calls these more expensive, Tudor Rose backed decks as the "First Series".)

6)  Early 1910: William Rider & Son, Ltd. makes the initial, low-cost production run of the cards, all of which have ivory-pebbled backs.  Eguchi refers to the decks manufactured in this initial full production run as the "Second Series" of the Waite-Smith Tarot.

Photo of an original 1909 Waite-Smith tarot deck with the accompanying guidebook by Arthur Edward Waite; this set is currently owned by tarot expert, K. Frank Jensen.

Just after her part of the tarot project had been completed, in a letter dated 19 November 1909, Pamela told her New York agent, Alfred Stieglitz, that she would send him a pack of the tarot cards which she said were being "printed in color lithography (probably very badly) as soon as they are ready" and that she would also "send over some of the original drawings as some people may like them." By "some people", she meant "buyers." Unfortunately, the location of her original art work is unknown. As of this point in time (the year 2010), not even one of the 80 original drawings for the cards has been found. It is known that the William Rider & Sons archives were entirely destroyed during the World War II bombing; thus, if the original drawings had been retained by Rider, they now no longer exist. The project was the largest that Pixie Smith had ever undertaken. "A big job for very little cash!" she would write to her friend and benefactor, Alfred Stieglitz in New York.

 

This is a photocopy of a letter, dated 19 November 1909, that Pamela Colman Smith sent to her New York agent, Alfred Stieglitz. In the letter, Pamela references the tarot deck project that she had just completed. The following is a transcript:

84 YORK MANSIONS
BATTERSEA PARK,
LONDON, S.W.

November - 19 - 1909

Dear Mr Steglitz [sic]

I wonder where you are!! I want Some money for Christmas! I wonder if you got Mrs Busches money for the "moon"? Can you send it to me?

I have 8 or 9 new things - I am sending over next week. You will like them I think. Perhaps a few people may care for one or two. They are careful & nice colour & larger than any except the Wave one.

I hope you are doing well - And the Little Galleries are still there!

I have just finished a big job for very little cash! A set of designs for a pack of Tarot cards 80 designs. I shall send some over - of the original drawings as some people may like them! I will send you a pack (printed in color by lithography) (possibly very badly!) as soon as they are ready by Dec 1 - I think.

With good wishes to you & Mrs Steglitz [sic] & the Secession all of it.

From yours sincerely

Pamela Colman Smith:

 

During the Edwardian Era, the ten year period that King Edward VII sat on the British throne (1901-1910), Pixie had perfected her personal artistic style and had kept busy as a book and magazine illustrator. While publishers mandated style to some extent, Pamela Colman Smith advocated what has become known as the "Arts and Crafts Style" in England and known as the "Secession Style" in the United States.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was dominate in England in the years just prior to World War I. Chronologically, the style lay between the Post-Impressionism of the 1890s and the Modernist style which would revolutionize art after the Great War. Practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement rejected superfluous Victorian "wedding cake" adornment and sought to return to the basics of simple lines and solid colors, in defiance of most bourgeois homeowners who wanted artistic clutter!

In those halcyon years just before the Great War, idealistic artists such as Pamela Colman Smith depicted a magical world in which technology did not dominate humankind. These artists sought to recreate pre-industrial, even primitive styles in art, architecture and decoration. Lines were simple. Colors were bold and earthy.

While the "Arts and Crafts Movement" flourished in the first decade of the 20th Century, Pamela managed to achieve modest financial independence with illustration work that was executed in that style. She even provided illustrations and wrote articles for American Gustav Stickley's The Craftsman magazine which was a leading purveyor of the style. She had engaged in many artistic endeavors, but it was her tarot cards that became her most enduring monument to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The cards were published with only modest marketing fanfare, in December 1909. Only a few occultists took notice, and most of them were engaged in feuds with each other. The general public did not notice. Use of tarot cards was considered to be a "French" custom, not English. Hitherto, the only Tarot cards available  in Britain or America were from France, Italy or Switzerland. Pamela probably felt that her cards would never become an element of popular culture.  It was not until the "New Age" movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, that use of tarot cards entered into the cultural mainstream.

By carefully examining the Waite-Smith Tarot  cards in succession, one is able to take a metaphorical trip through a realm depicting a kind of cosmic wisdom. Notable landmarks, such as castles, bridges and towers, appear and reappear from different vantage points throughout this "Alchemical Journey." The realm is populated by beings who sometimes wear Renaissance clothing, but at other times appear in Greek chitons and Roman togas. This whole mystical world is beyond ordinary space and linear sequential time!

In my opinion, Waite never adequately acknowledged the importance of Pamela Smith's work. In the book written to accompany the cards, he failed to mention her by name, saying only that a "young woman artist" had illustrated them upon his instructions. In fact, since 1901, Pamela had been a full member of the Order of the Golden Dawn right along with the better known members such as William Butler Yeats, Florence Farr and Waite himself. Many years later, when Waite wrote his autobiography entitled Shadows of Life and Thought (published in 1938), he still tended to downplay her contributions to the project. He wrote the following:

Now in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist named Pamela Coleman [sic] Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and found its ceremonies - as transformed by myself - without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their sub-surface consequence.  It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a tarot with an appeal to the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes.

My personal opinion is that the "lion's share" of the credit for the deck actually belongs to Pixie Smith.  Each card in the Waite-Smith deck has its own unique scene which may be associated with the divinatory meaning of the card. Waite was probably involved only in the design of the 22 cards of the Major Arcana; the remaining 56 pip cards were essentially left to Pamela to create on her own. Even with respect to the cards of the Major Arcana, Pixie probably retained a great deal of artistic discretion.  Indeed, in his 1938 autobiography, Waite only mentions three cards (see their images on the right) for which he carefully controlled the design effort:

I saw to it that Pamela Coleman [sic] Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess card, over that which is called the Fool and over the Hanged Man.

In addition to Waite's guidance, I regard the main inspiration for her design of the cards of the Major Arcana was the 18th century French Tarot de Marseille. Conversely, her main inspiration for the pip cards was probably the 15th century Italian Sola Busca Tarot.

Pamela never wrote about her knowledge of the occult mysteries. But the very first card in the deck, "The Magician" (see illustration on the left), is graphic proof that she had acquired some significant esoteric knowledge.  This knowledge was probably obtained from an English translation of a 15th Century German grimoire entitled Das Buch Abramelin, written by a German-Jewish sorcerer, who claimed to have been initiated into the ancient mysteries by a master living in a desert cave on the banks of the Nile. In 1900, an English translation by one of the Golden Dawn founders, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, entitled: Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage was published. Unfortunately, Mathers used an incomplete French manuscript as his source, hence his translation is far from perfect.  A much better English translation, made from more accurate and complete German language manuscripts, was made and published in 2006. 

Those who have read the Mathers translation, will immediately recognize that Smith's "Magician" trump has been drawn in accordance with a description given in this document. In Book II, Chapter 11 of the Mathers translation, the aspiring magician is instructed as follows:

He who commenceth this Operation in solitude can elect a place according unto his pleasure; where there is a small wood, in the midst of which you shall make a small Altar, and you shall cover the same with a hut (or shelter) of fine branches, so that the rain may not fall thereon and extinguish the Lamp and the Censer. Around the Altar at the distance of seven paces you shall prepare a hedge of flowers, plants, and green shrubs, so that it may divide the entrance into two parts; that is to say, the Interior where the Altar and Tabernacle will be placed after the manner of a Temple; and the part Exterior, which with the rest of the place will be as a Portico thereunto. ... The Altar, which should be made of wood ... wherein you shall keep all the necessary things, such as the two Robes, the Crown or Mitre, the Wand, the Holy Oils, the Girdle or Belt, the Perfume; and any other things which may be necessary. ... habiliments will be a Shirt or Tunic of linen, large and white, with well and properly made sleeves. The other Robe will be of Crimson or Scarlet Silk with Gold, and it should not be longer than just unto the knees, with sleeves of similar stuff. As for these vestments, there is no particular rule for them; nor any especial instructions to be followed; but the more resplendent, clean, and brilliant they are the better will it be. You shall also make a Girdle of Silk of the same colour as the Tunic, wherewithal you shall be girded. You shall have upon your head a beautiful Crown or woven Fillet [headband] of Silk and Gold. ... You shall also have a Wand of Almond-tree wood, smooth and straight, of the length of about half an ell ... 

In addition to that first "Magician" card, there are many other examples of Renaissance alchemical symbolique included throughout the deck, Pamela shows that she was highly knowledgeable in the alchemical arts. Though the secretive Arthur Edward Waite was very reluctant to clearly describe the true purpose of the tarot, I am certain that Pamela Colman Smith knew that the tarot cards were not tools for mere fortunetelling. She must have realized that the cards of the Major Arcana were originally created to provide a symbolique progression describing the human soul's initiatory path to higher states of consciousness.

By the 1940s, the Waite-Smith card decks were no longer in wide-spread use. It was not until the American playing card manufacturer, Stuart R. Kaplan, resurrected them through a reprint in 1971, that the cards again achieved popularity.  It is also thanks to Kaplan's research, that we have at least some information concerning the Edwardian artist who created these extraordinary cards. In 1909, Pixie Smith created an aesthetic and occult masterpiece that has retained it's appeal into the 21st century.

I will conclude this essay with a quotation from Chapter XX of Arthur Edward Waite's 1938 autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought (pages 194-195):

If anyone feels drawn ... to the serious consideration of Tarot Symbolism they will do well to select the codex of coloured cards produced under my supervision by Miss Pamela Coleman [sic] Smith. I feel at liberty to mention these as I have no interest in their sale. If they seek to place upon each individually the highest reflection, then to combine the messages, modifying their formulation until the whole series moves together in harmony, the result may be something of living value to themselves and therefore true for them. I am speaking especially of the Trumps Major. ... We are speaking here solely of pictured images; but the way of the mystics ultimately leaves behind it the kaleidoscope of eternal things that the still light shines in and from the mind ...


References:   1)  K. Frank Jensen, "The Early Waite-Smith Tarot Editions" (June 2005), article in The Playing Card, the Magazine of the International Playing Card Society.
 

                                     2)  Stuart R. Kaplan, The Artwork and Times of Pamela Colman Smith (2009), pages 75-81.

                         3)  Stuart R. Kaplan, Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume III (1990), pages 31-32.

                         4)  S. L. MacGregor Mathers, translator, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (1900).

                         5)  Arthur Edward Waite, "The Tarot: A Wheel of Fortune," The Occult Review, Volume 10, Number 12 (December 1909), pages 307-317.

                         6)  Arthur Edward Waite, Shadows of Life and Thought (1938), pages 184-185 and 194-195.

                         7)  Koretaka Eguchi, Internet article entitled:  "Rider Waite Smith Tarot Adverts in The Occult Review."
 

 


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