Biography of Pamela Colman Smith


Yeats Family and Pamela Colman Smith


The famous poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); photograph was taken in 1911 by English photographer, George Charles Beresford (1864-1938).

Sketch of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) made by Pamela Colman Smith in 1901. Pamela worked with both Yeats brothers during the Edwardian Era.

Self portrait of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922); John was the father of both William and Jack. The drawing was made on 23 August 1903.

Photograph of the noted painter, Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957), who was the younger bother of William Butler Yeats. Photo was taken in 1911.



This triptych is an illustration PCS made for the poem "The Land of Hearts Desire" which was included in the 1898 book entitled The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats.


From 1898 until at least 1904, Pamela Colman Smith (PCS) collaborated with members of the Yeats family on a number of projects. Her first project occurred in 1898, when Robert Howard Russell, a major New York publisher, began to feature her artwork in several of his publications. One of these publications was a small book entitled The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats; her work for this book marked the beginning of her collaboration with the Yeats family (see the above illustration).

In the early summer of 1899, while on a visit to New York, the English actress Florence Farr had engaged Pamela Colman Smith, to design new scenes for the William Butler Yeats mystery play entitled The Countess Cathleen. The new sets were intended for use when the Yeats play would be performed in New York at some future date. 

Later in that same Summer of 1899, PCS and her father, Charles Edward Smith (1846-1899), made a trip to England. While there, they visited Bedford Park to call on the painter, John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), father of William Butler Yeats.  John Yeats mentions this event in a letter (dated "Monday, 1899!") written to his son, W. B. Yeats:


Pamela Smith and father are the funniest-looking people, the most primitive Americans possible, but I like them much. Pamela (Miss Smith her father always said even when addressing her) is bringing out a book of Jamaica folklore. Her work whether a drawing or telling of a piece of folklore is very direct and sincere and therefore original -- its originality being its naïveté. I should feel safe in getting her to illustrate anything. She does not draw well, but has the right feeling for line and expression and colour. Her dressing is not a decorative success. The bluest of blue dresses, you feel disposed to call it scarlet, blue seems in this connection such a mild word. She sits as above--the hat is straw, with great black cork feathers sticking up out of it.  She looks exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water. You at first think her rather elderly, you are surprised to find out that she is very young, quite a girl. I would say of her as was said of Robespierre--she will go far because she believes in all her ideas, this time artistic ideas. I don't think there is anything great or profound in her, or very emotional or practical. She has the simplicity and naïveté of an old dry as dust savant -- a savant with a child's heart.


John Butler Yeats' letter was accompanied by his sketch of Pamela; unfortunately, I have not yet been able to obtain a copy. The book of Jamaican folklore that John Yeats mentions is the book called Annancy Stories, which was originally published in 1899 by Robert Howard Russell. Before leaving England, PCS wrote to William Butler Yeats concerning her idea for a children's book of Gaelic mythology.

After PCS and her father returned from their visit to England, she joined the Lyceum Theater Company on what was their sixth tour of the United States. This tour lasted from October 1899 to May 1900.

Unfortunately, Pamela's father died in December 1899; PCS was now left as an orphan with no close relatives. Her mother had died in 1896, both sets of her grandparents were dead and she had no siblings.

She continued with the theater tour as she had become close friends with the tour leaders, Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and with their business manager, Bram Stoker. When the theater company returned to England in late May 1900, Pamela returned with them. Ellen Terry had given her the nickname of "Pixie" and she now adopted this name for herself.  She was now just 22 years old, without parents or siblings, but determined to become successful as an artist.

Pixie Smith soon renewed her acquaintance with the Yeats family; by 1901, she had become a good friends with both sons of John Butler Yeats, i.e., William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957).

In February 1901, William Butler Yeats and the English actress, Florence Farr, gave a lecture-demonstration in London entitled “Some New Methods of Speaking Verse.”  The event attracted the London press and one reporter, Henry Nevinson, wrote in the Daily Chronicle that:

The poet’s purpose was to revive the old chanting of ballads and lyrics as it was done by the bards of Ireland and most European countries—certainly by the Homeric rhapsodists of Greece, where Mr. Yeats maintains even the drama was chanted or intoned. Admirable examples of the poet’s meaning were given by Miss Florence Farr and Miss Anna Mather, with the accompaniment of a harp and even so familiar an instrument as the piano, where one felt the lyre, the tympan, and the Pan-pipe alone would have been in place. The effect, especially in some of Mr. Yeats’s own lyrics, was peculiarly beautiful.

The lecture had been given to promote a proposed London production of Yeats' play The Countess Cathleen.  In early March, Pixie Smith met Yeats at a London studio tea hosted by Mrs. Stuart Erskine, editor of the Kensington magazine. The Kensington was a short-lived magazine of "Art, Literature and the Drama" that was published for only seven issues (March-September 1901). In a letter to the American editor and author, Albert Bigelow Paine, dated 17 March 1901, she wrote:

W.B.Y. was there and he is a rummy critter! ... Then W.B. began to talk! Folklore, songs, plays, Irish language, and lots more - reciting a sort of folk song which was splendid!  And not stopping for interruptions made by Mrs. E[rskine] pig - who made silly remarks. It was fun! ... He was most excited about Countess Cathleen in my theatre!  And wants me to give a performance of it to the “Brotherhood of the Three Kings” a crazy Irish sort of literary society!  Won’t it be fun?!!!!!

William Butler Yeats in the study of his residence at the Woburn Buildings, London in 1904.

Almost two years previously, in the early summer of 1899, Florence Farr had engaged Pamela Colman Smith, to design new scenes for The Countess Cathleen that were intended for use when the play would be performed in New York at some future date.  Now, in late May 1901, Pixie Smith did indeed stage scenes from "The Countess Cathleen" in her new Henrietta Theatre, using the 1899 stage designs that she had made (at Florence Farr's request) when she still lived in New York. The Henrietta Theatre was a small playhouse that was adjacent to the costumery that PCS and Edith Craig operated at Number 13, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden in London.  In another letter to Albert Paine, dated 28 May 1901, Pixie wrote: 

Yeats came and saw part of "The Countess Cathleen" and seems much pleased with the theatre!

When in London, Yeats maintained a regular Monday evening "open house" at his residence in the Woburn Buildings (see photo at the left). These Monday evenings had become poetic chanting sessions conducted to the sound of a one-stringed Montenegrin lute. Florence Farr would bring several young actresses to these evenings, to train them in this new art.  Yeats himself began to train as chanters several young poets, i.e., T. Sturge Moore, Laurence Binyon, Robert Bridges, and even the art critic, Roger Fry. William Rothenstein, a regular at these chanting sessions, described the atmosphere:

When Yeats came down, candle in hand, to guide one up the long flight of stairs to his rooms, one never knew what company one would find there. There were ladies who sat on the floor and chanted stories, or crooned poems to the accompaniment of a one-stringed instrument.

PCS almost certainly attended some of these sessions and probably it was from Farr and Yeats that she learned to perform her own chanting involving Jamaican folktales and Yeats' poetry.

Pixie Smith began to do illustration work and stage set design for William Butler Yeats in both London and Ireland. In October 1901, while in Dublin, she made a color sketch (shown on the right) of Yeats which was later published in a New York periodical entitled The Lamp - A Review and Record of Current Literature (Volume XXVIII, Number 1, February 1904).

Bram Stoker and William Yeats introduced Pamela to several occultists who frequented the theatre district around Leicester Square. A popular book store in that area was "Watkins Books" which had recently opened in 1897. Watkins was the world's first book shop to openly specialize in occult literature. By 1901, the shop had become a popular meeting place for the London esoteric community. Notables such as William Wynn Westcott, MacGregor Mathers, Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley all passed through the portals of this shop at Number 21 Cecil Court. Pamela Colman Smith became acquainted with many of these people and did artistic work for several of them.

One of the most elite occult organizations of the late Victorian and Edwardian Eras in England, was a group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. William Yeats had become a member in March 1890, taking the magical motto Daemon est Deus inversus (A Demon is a God reflected). He was an active recruiter for the sect's Isis-Urania Lodge in London, and had brought his maternal uncle, George Pollexfen (1839-1910), and the actresses Maud Gonne (1866-1953) and Florence Farr (1860-1917) into the Order.

In November 1901, primarily due to the persuasive efforts of William Butler Yeats, Pixie Smith was initiated into the Golden Dawn with the motto: Quod Tibi Id Allis (Whatever You Would Have Done to Thee). Her greatest contribution to the occult world would come several years later, in 1909, when she would be commissioned by Arthur Edward Waite, to design what became the most popular tarot deck in history: The Waite-Smith Deck.

In 1902, she teamed up with Jack Butler Yeats as co-editor and illustrator for a periodical called A Broad Sheet. Their periodical commenced in January 1902 and contained both original art and literature. This venture demanded a great deal of work but yielded only a small financial return. The magazine was said to possess both charm and originality but it was of only limited public appeal. PCS worked on the publication for only the first year. In January 1903, mainly because of the burden of hand-coloring each illustration, she pulled out of the venture. Jack Yeats was not opposed to her withdrawl as he had found their association to be unsatisfactory. In a letter to John Quinn, dated 15 December 1902, he wrote that:

Between you and me and the wall, as they say, Miss Pamela Smith (though I think a fine imaginative illustrator with a fine eye for colour and just the artist for illuminating verse) is a little bit erratic, and she being a woman I can't take a very high hand with things, so there is often a lot of bother about the numbers, and I don't like to be responsible for anything that I have not got absolute control of.

Jack Yates' opinion that PCS could be difficult to work with was supported by the opinion of his sister, Lily Yeats (1866-1949). Many years later, in a letter written in November 1937, she wrote:

I used to go to her studio once a month and color Jack's pictures while she did hers, only a hundred. Yet she often lay on the sofa and cried because, she said, I was bullying her and making her work when she did not feel like work.

In spite of their problems when working together, PCS remained friends with both Jack Yates and his wife, Mary Cottenham (Cottie) Yeats (1869-1947).  Indeed, Cottie's copy of Pamela Smith's Annancy Stories is inscribed "Cottie with love Pixie Pamela May 1904" and it contains three drawings, two of Pamela herself and one of a mouse! A Broad Sheet continued for only another year, the last issue being the one for December 1903.

In 1903, Pamela produced her own artistic magazine under the title The Green Sheaf. This venture included contributors such as William Butler Yeats, Christopher St John (Christabel Marshall), Cecil French, A. E. (George William Russell), Gordon Craig, Dorothy Ward, and John Todhunter. Her new publication was also short lived, it ran for only  a little over a year - 13 issues in all.  Both A Broad Sheet and The Green Sheaf were relatively expensive periodicals, finely hand-crafted but produced in very limited quantities. Unfortunately, the 20th century was rapidly becoming an age of cheap, mass produced products.

The year 1903 was highly significant in the history of the Golden Dawn. During the Spring of that year, due to doctrinal squabbles, the Isis-Urania Lodge permanently fractured into two separate groups: one group called the "Stella Matutina" (Morning Star) and another group called the "Independent and Rectified Rite." William Butler Yeats opted for the Stella Matutina; he would remain in this group until the early 1920s. In November 1903, PCS opted to join the "Independant and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn" which was the group led by Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942). Despite this schism in their occult preferences, it does not seem to have adversely affected her friendship or her professional relationship with Yeats.

In 1904, PCS and her good friend, Edith Craig (1869-1947), the illegitimate daughter of actress Ellen Terry, worked as the stage designers for William Yeats in the London production of his play Where There Is Nothing. The play premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 20 June 1904 and enjoyed a successful run.  Most plays of that era were set exclusively indoors; however, most of the scenes in Where There Is Nothing were set outdoors. This presented a creative challenge to Smith and Craig, but Yeats was totally pleased by their innovative set designs. On 24 November 1904, he wrote to his Irish patron, Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), that "Pixie Smith ... alone seems to understand what I want."

In 1911, Pixie Smith converted to Roman Catholicism.  From this time forward, her relationship with most of her former friends seems to have deteriorated, particularly those who were members of the Golden Dawn. One of her old friends from the Yeats family was Susan Mary "Lily" Yeats (1866-1949), a younger sister of William Butler Yeats. In a letter written to her father, on 18 June 1913, she mentions Pixie Smith with the following words:

... I stayed with Pixie in London, ... Pixie is as delightful as ever and has a big-roomed flat near Victoria Station with black walls and orange curtains. She is now an ardent and pious Roman Catholic, which has added to her happiness but taken from her friends. She now has the dullest of friends, selected entirely because they are R.C., converts most of them, half educated people, who want to see both eyes in a profile drawing. She goes to confession every Saturday - except the week I was there - she couldn't think of any sins, so my influence must have been very holy. I heard the other day of a priest who said that confessing nuns was like being eaten alive by ducks. ...

The above is the last reference I possess  concerning any connection between Pamela Colman Smith and members of the Yeats family.


References:  1)  Stuart R. Kaplan, The Artwork and Times of Pamela Colman Smith (2009), pages 12, 38-49.

                        2)  Joan Coldwell, "Pamela Colman Smith and the Yeats Family," The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Volume 3, Number 2 (November 1977), pages 27-34.

                        3)  Bruce Arnold, Jack Yeats (1998), pages 101-105.

                        4) Ronald Schuchard, "The Countess Cathleen and the Revival of the Bardic Arts", South Carolina Review, Volume 33, Number 1, Fall 2000.



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