Pamela Colman Smith was the illustrator of one of the first commercial and possibly most successful tarot decks, the Rider Waite deck. She received neither the recognition she hoped for nor the recompense she deserved. However, her paintings have influenced the design of most modern decks.
Corinne Pamela Colman Smith was born in Pimlico, Middlesex1, England on 16 February, 1878. Her parents were Charles Edward Smith and Corinne (née Colman) Smith. Her father was from Brooklyn, New York and her mother was Jamaican. Pamela was blessed with exotic looks from her mixed ethnicity. Her childhood was spent travelling since her father was an auditor for the West India Company; she spent her time in Brooklyn, London and Kingston.
Her mother died when she was ten, and because she was often separated from her father by his work she joined the Lyceum theatre group for company. Much of her later art work was influenced by her early teen years which she spent touring the country in this theatrical community.
She returned to be with her father in New York when she was 15 and attended the newly opened Pratt Institute, studying art with Arthur Wesley Dow and graduating four years later. Pamela returned to London in June 1899 with an ambition to succeed as an artist and author. She wrote Annancy Stories, a set of Jamaican tales about an African folk figure, Anansi the Spider, among other books on folk tales.
The Golden Dawn and The Tarot
Pamela was now a published writer, an achievement that opened many doors in turn-of-the-century London. She illustrated books for the poet William Butler Yeats, who introduced her to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by Dr William Woodman, Dr William Wynn Westcott and SL MacGregor Mathers on 1 March, 1888. It was an occult order based on esoteric Christianity. By the time Pamela Colman Smith was inducted into the order it was splitting itself apart at the seams. Many of its members were rebelling against Mathers, who among other things, was involved in an alleged magical war with Aleister Crowley2.
The Order broke up into a number of factions; many of the members, including Pamela, formed The Order of the Independent and Rectified Rite, headed up by Arthur Edward Waite.
Waite was working on a new tarot deck and, aware of Pamela's artistic abilities, asked her to illustrate them.
The Rider-Waite Tarot
The deck that Smith and Waite came up with was published by the Rider and Sons Company in 1909. It has become the biggest selling tarot deck of all time. When people see tarot cards in the media, the cards that are most often seen are the Rider Waite deck. The 78 pictures that Pamela Smith painted are those that most people associate with the tarot. However, aside from a pittance in payment, she received nothing for doing the cards. Her name isn't even on the deck.
The Rider-Waite3 is a ground-breaking deck in that it opened the tarot up to many people. In a major departure, the minor cards4 featured paintings depicting the meaning of each card, rather than the playing-card style that was previously used. Many believe that it was the changes that Colman Smith made to these minor cards that made the deck more accessible. The changes allowed readings to be made by readers who didn't have to remember the complex occult numerology, which led to the deck's success. Nevertheless, Colman Smith received no royalty on the sales. Arthur Waite was much more interested in getting the 22 major cards correct and left Colman Smith to work on the minor cards mainly by herself.
Many subsequent decks have used Colman Smith's designs as a basis for their own, sometimes just thematically and at other times almost totally copying her pictures.
And Was Her Future Golden?
Colman Smith received an inheritance after World War I and rented a house called 'The Lizard' in Cornwall. She lived with her friend Mrs Nora Lake before they both moved to a house in Bude in 1939. Colman Smith had not sought fame or notoriety. She just hoped to be recognized for her work. When she died on 18 September, 1951, all her possessions were sold off to pay for her debts, leaving Mrs Lake with nothing to remember her by — not even a gravestone.