On this day in history : 16th February 1878 – The birth of Pamela Colman Smith – the writer, artist, illustrator and occultist, who created the classic Rider-Waite deck of tarot cards….
Lots of us have had our cards read at some time or other, whether for fun – or as a way of helping to gain understanding or comfort during difficult times in our lives…. Tarot cards, as a pack of playing cards, have been around since the mid 15th Century – the first documented being in Milan, Ferrara, Florence and Bologna…. Early cards were hand painted and so there were very few packs around – with the invention of the printing press mass production became possible….
Around 1789 Etteilla, the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Alliette, the French occultist who first popularised tarot divination, was the first to have a pack of tarot cards designed specifically for occult purposes…. Nowadays the three most common decks used are the Tarot of Marseilles, the Thoth Tarot deck, devised by Aleister Crowley with Lady Frieda Harris and the Rider-Waite deck….
Poet and mystic Edward Waite wanted a fully illustrated deck of tarot cards – the only one at the time was the ‘Sola Busca’, which was created for a wealthy family in Milan during the 1490s…. It was Pamela Colman Smith he turned to for the design of his own set….
Pamela was born in Pimlico, London, to wealthy parents who had a large circle of influential friends…. Her mother, Corinne Colman, was Jamaican and her father, Charles Edward Smith, a white American…. Pamela, known to her friends as ‘Pixie’, was an only child and spent the first decade of her childhood in Manchester, before living in Jamaica for a while….
In 1893 she moved to America and at the age of 15 enrolled at the newly founded Pratt Institute, studying art under artist, photographer and print maker Arthur Wesley Dow, chairman of the Institute…. Pamela, with her natural and mature talent, embraced the Art Nouveau and Symbolism styles of the time….
Corinne Colman died – Pamela took her mother’s death hard and it affected her health…. She left the Institute in 1897, before gaining her degree…. She returned to be with her father and took up work as an illustrator….
She became involved with the Lyceum Theatre group, headed by Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker and Henry Irving…. She toured the country with them, designing costumes and sets…. Then, when she was 21, her father died….once more hitting her hard….
By 1901 Pamela had established her own studio in London…. She would hold weekly meetings for artists, actors and writers, which reflected her bohemian lifestyle…. Some of her illustration projects included work on ‘The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats’ and works by Bram Stoker…. She also produced written work of her own, such as ‘Widdicombe Fair’ and ‘Annancy Stories’ and started her own magazine ‘The Green Sheaf’…. Also around this time she was actively involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement….
In 1907 prominent photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz gave her space to hold an exhibition in his New York gallery; she was the first artist he had allowed to do so…. It was also around this time that she met, through Yeats, Edward Waite – and they became friends…. It was in 1909 that he commissioned her to do the artwork for the tarot deck he wished to create…. He suggested she drew on the 15th entry Sola Busca cards for inspiration, which she did – although it was also widely thought that the characters in her tarot deck were based on her own social circle….
Pamela was the first to use characters even on the lower cards; previously images of groups of cups, wands, swords and pentacles were used…. The result Pamela achieved was a deck of 78 beautifully illustrated cards, which sold at a cost of 6 shillings – a huge amount of money in the day…. They were first published in November 1909, by publisher William Rider – giving the Rider part of the name….
This photograph of Pamela Colman Smith, by an unknown photographer, was first published in the October 1912 issue of ‘The Craftsman’ in an article entitled ‘The Fairy Faith and Pictured Music of Pamela Colman Smith’…. She was 34-years-old at the time and I think you will agree the photograph portrays a woman with an appealing charm and maybe a mischievous streak….
She converted to Roman Catholicism a couple of years later – and some ten years after that opened a rest home for priests in Cornwall, using an inheritance she had received…. Over 100 million sets of the Rider-Waite tarot deck are in circulation around the world, making it the most popular set ever…. Pamela was paid a small fee for producing the designs – but she did not receive royalties…. She carried on working, producing art work for the World War 2 campaign and other commissions – but never recognised a significant commercial success…. She died on the 18th of September 1951, penniless…. Her unsold artwork was auctioned off to settle her outstanding debts….