Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

This is an article that originally appeared on my About.com site, but because of a network overhaul, it’s no longer available there. I wanted to share it with you anyway, because so many people forget the contribution that this woman made to the world of Tarot. Of particular note is that Smith was a woman of color, working in the creative arts during the turn of the twentieth century.


Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

The Rider Waite Tarot deck is one of the most iconic collections of images in the metaphysical world. If you see a Rider Waite card, you know exactly what it is. This is the deck that many new Tarot readers choose to learn the ropes on, and it’s often the one that is used in books on Tarot, because the symbolism is so rich and heavy. But where did the Rider Waite deck come from? Turns out it was designed and created by an artist whose name doesn’t even appear on the deck most of the time.

Pamela Colman Smith (1878 – 1951) was a London-born artist who spent her childhood in Manchester and Jamaica with her parents. Smith was biracial; her mother was Jamaican, and her father was a white American (his father, Smith’s grandfather, was the mayor of Brooklyn for a time).

As a teenager, Smith attended art school in New York City, at the Pratt Institute, and developed a stylized look that soon put her in high demand as an illustrator. Some of Smith’s most popular drawings were utilized in works by Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, and she wrote and illustrated books of her own as well.

After her mother passed away in 1896, Smith left Pratt without graduating, to join a traveling theater group and lead the nomadic life of a troubadour. In addition to working onstage, Smith developed a reputation as a skilled costume and set designer. Keep in mind that during the early part of the twentieth century, this was an unusual occupation for a young, single woman. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement that took off in the years around the turn of the century.

Little is known about her romantic life, although Smith never married or had children. It’s certainly possible that she preferred women; there is a great deal of speculation about her relationships with housemate Nora Lake, as well as Smith’s close friend, actress Edith Craig, who was definitely a lesbian. Smith surrounded herself with creative, intelligent people who valued her passion for art.

Her early work with William Butler Yeats would prove to be the catalyst for some changes in Smith’s life; around 1901, he introduced her to his friends in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At some point in her Golden Dawn experience, she met the poet and mystic Edward Waite. Around 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to do the artwork for a new Tarot deck he was interested in creating.

Waite wanted to see a Tarot deck in which every card was illustrated – which was something completely new. Up until this point, throughout the history of Tarot, decks primarily had illustrations only on the Major Arcana, and sometimes the court cards. The only known example of a fully illustrated deck, up until this point, was the Sola Busca deck, commissioned by a wealthy Milanese family in the 1490s. Waite suggested Smith use Sola Busca for her inspiration, and there are many similarities in the symbolism between the two decks. Smith was the first artist to use characters as representative images in the lower cards; rather than just showing a group of cups, coins, wands or swords, Smith worked human beings into the mix, and created a rich tapestry of occult symbolism that set the gold standard for modern Tarot decks.

The resulting collection of 78 cards was published by Rider and Sons, and sold for a whopping six shillings as the first mass market Tarot deck. Thanks to the publisher and Edward Waite, the deck became known commercially as the Rider Waite deck, although in some circles it is now referred to as the Waite Smith deck, or even Rider Waite Smith, as credit to the artist.

Interestingly, Smith did not receive royalties from the deck, and it appears that she wasn’t paid much at all for her creation of the original work. Although her artwork was popular, she never seemed to gain mass commercial success, and she died penniless in Cornwall in 1951.

Although Smith’s artwork appears simple on the surface, it’s deceptively complex. Each piece represents so many different aspects of the human experience, which is why this deck – whether you call it Rider Waite, RWS, or Waite Smith – has become such a valuable tool for intuitive readers.  Many modern Tarot readers owe a great debt to Pamela Colman Smith, for providing us with a collection of 78 paintings that delve so deeply into our hearts and souls.

For a thorough and in-depth look at Pamela Colman Smith and her life, be sure to read Beth Maiden’s post at AutoStraddle, Fool’s Journey: The Fascinating Life of Pamela Colman Smith or Mary K. Greer’s The Art of Pamela Colman Smith.

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