Pamela colman smith: the pixie of the tarot

Many Renaissance festival goers have sat across a draped table with a reader and listened while this gifted individual shared insights from a tarot deck. Likely, the deck was illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith; her deck is probably the most recognizable of all the tarot. An artist whose style was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement of the early twentieth century, her influence and legacy are a wonderful aspect of many people’s faire experiences.

For anyone who has ever seen a tarot deck, whether in their own tarot reading or in the media, their first and most lasting impression will most likely be of the images on the cards- striking archetypes that connect with them on an intuitive level. Images such as The Fool, The Lovers, the Death card, and 74 others make up what has become the standard tarot deck. And when most people think of the images on those cards, they call to mind those of the what has become known as the classic Rider-Waite Tarot Deck so called for the last names of the publisher (Rider Publishing) and the developer, occultist A.E. Waite. However, one name is that is often overlooked is that of the artist who created those now iconic images, an independent, free-thinking creative woman called Pamela Colman Smith, better known to her friends as “Pixie”.  Her life and career spanned the worlds of art, literature, theatre, religion, philosophy, esotericism, and brought her into contact with some of the greatest artists and thought leaders of her day. Though largely forgotten today, she was a true Renaissance woman whose impact is still felt today.

Pamela Colman Smith was born on February 16, 1878 to American parents living in London. Her father, Charles Smith, was a merchant whose family hailed from Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Corinne Colman Smith, was the sister of the artist Samuel Colman, whose water color paintings of life on the Hudson River hang in prestigious galleries including the Smithsonian Museum of Art. Pamela’s artistic talent was doubtlessly encouraged by her mother at a young age. An only child, Colman Smith, lived the first decade of her life in Manchester, England, but in 1889, Charles took a position with the West Indian Improvement Company, and the family relocated to Kingston, Jamaica. This move would have a profound impact on young Pamela. There she developed a love for the folklore of the Jamaican people. She would later write and publish two collections of these stories- Annancy Stories published in 1899 and Chim-Chim, Folk Stories from Jamaica, published in 1905.

Her family traveled often back to London and to visit their family in New York. At the age of 15, she remained in Brooklyn and enrolled in the Pratt Institute, were she studied art under the guidance of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose students also included influential American artists such as Georgia O’Keefe. Even at a young aged, her teachers were impressed with her mature style which melded influences of the Fin-de-siecle French style, Romanticism, and the American Arts and Crafts movement. While in school, her mother died and then, just as she turned 21, her father passed away. She left the Pratt Institute without finishing her degree and became a commercial illustrator, providing images for a collection of poems by William Butler Yeats, a biography of actress Ellen Terry by Dracula author Bram Stoker, and for two of her books, Widdicombe Fair and Fair Vanity.

In 1899, after the death of her father, she returned to London, where, in addition to her illustrating and graphic artist work, she moved into the world of theatrical design. This led her to an association with the renowned Lyceum Theater Group, to which belonged two of the greatest actors of the age, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, and was managed by Bram Stoker. She traveled with the Lyceum company, as costume and set designer. It is believed that Ellen Terry was the one who gave her the nickname, “Pixie”. When back in London, she opened an art studio and would host weekly gatherings for artists, authors, actors, and other members of the London bohemian society.

It was through her friendship with the poet William Butler Yeats that, in 1901, Pixie was introduced to members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a London based “secret society” dedicated to the study of metaphysics, ritual magic, and parapsychology. The Order of the Golden Dawn was part of a larger movement of spiritualism, occultism, and esoteric studies that was sweeping through Great Britain, Europe, and North America. Seances were all the rage and lectures on astral projection, ESP, and ancient religions were well attended. Other members of the Order included Alistair Crowley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a Brooklyn born poet and self-proclaimed mystic named Arthur Edward Waite.

Waite had been working on an idea for a new type of Tarot deck, based on his studies of Golden Dawn mysticism, biblical symbology, astrology, and the Kaballah. Tarot decks and been around for centuries. Tarot was originally a card game developed in the 1400’s in Italy, though some claimed its origins went back as far as ancient Egypt. A tarot deck normally sonsited of about 20 “trump” cards with different images and then another 52 or so base cards divided into four suits- cups, pentacles (or coins), swords, and wands (or staves) with each suit containing an ace card, number 2-10, then a page, knight, queen, and king.

In time, tarot decks also began to be used for purposes of divination. The trump cards became known as the Major Arcana, those cards tended to be interpreted as being related to the querent’s major life happenings, and the suits (the Minor Arcana) related to more of the day-to-day trends in a person’s life. The familiar imagery of the Major Arcana- the Lovers, the Devil, Death, The Fool, and others, were first introduced in a French tarot deck, The Marseilles Deck which was first published in the late 1400’s.

Waite envisioned a deck that would use strong archetypal imagery not only in the Major Arcana, but in the Minor Arcana as well, which up to that time usually consisted of numbered pips, much like a traditional deck of cards. Having seen Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations and her unique way of blending imagery and color, he felt she was exactly the right person to create the images, and, in 1909, commissioned her to do just that.

While Waite provided Pixie with detailed instructions around the meaning and symbolism of each card, it was her unique talent and inspiration that created the iconic imagery we know today. Her eye for color, action, and perspective frame the characters and images in a way that draw the eye to see what is most important. However, there is such rich detail in each picture that one can study the scene, leave it and come back later and discover some new detail that missed in the last viewing.

Her theatrical flair imbues every card with a rich tapestry of visual riches. Her flair for costume design shows in the rich fabrics and eye catching design in many of the characters in the card, especially royalty, where robes in vibrant colors are covered in patterns of pomegranates, salamanders, and flowers. Her use of colors to create mood and tone give the viewer an immediate emotional reaction to the imagery of each card.

It is, however, her gift for storytelling in a single image that made the Waite-Smith deck such a masterpiece. One does not have to be student of the tarot to be able to grasp immediately the basic meaning of the card. For an example appropriate to Valentine’s Day, consider The Lovers. A young woman and a young man, nude and unashamed, look upon each other as if for the first time. It is obvious that they represent Adam and Eve in the garden, yet the overarching emotion is one of young lovers with eyes only for each other. Behind the woman, a fruit tree blossoms with a serpent wrapped around its trunk. There is love, but the fruit of temptation looms in the background. Behind the man stands another tree, this one with leaves that look like flames, as if representing the fiery lust that consumes him. Above them, riding the clouds, an angel with hair of flame extends its arms in a kind of benediction while above all the sun shines brightly on all in this Eden of love.

Contrast this with The Devil, another Major Arcana card. Here we find the lovers again. However, the imagery has taken a very dark turn, which is evident in the black background that permeates the card. The lovers now stand with metal collars around their necks and chained to a stone column.  Upon the column sits a traditional image of the Devil, bat-winged, goat-faced, with horns, fur covered legs and clawed feet. The lovers are now bound to some great evil and have lost the purity of their young love.

Smith completed all 78 pieces of art for the deck in six months, working from April through October of 1909. Unfortunately, none of her original pieces have survived. What has survived is a collection of images so captivating that the Waite-Smith tarot deck has had more than 100 million copies printed and distributed in over 20 countries, making it the most popular deck ever published.

Smith’s accomplishments didn’t end with the creation of the tarot, however. She had already begun work as a publisher, creating a literary magazine called The Green Sheaf in 1903. The magazine only lasted a year, but it morphed into The Green Sheaf Press, a boutique publishing house Smith created that published novels, poems, fairytales, and folk tales, mostly by women authors.

Her other art pieces were widely praised in her time. In 1907, the American photographer and art promoter Arthur Stieglitz (husband of Georgia O’Keefe) invited Pixie to show her work in an exhibition at his gallery in New York, making her the first painter to be invited to do so, for up that point, he had only promoted photographic work.

In 1911, Smith converted to Catholicism and, after the first World War, left the London bohemian scene behind her, relocating to Cornwall. Using money from an inheritance left to her by an uncle, she opened a vacation home for Catholic priests. She continued to write and paint, but had little success getting her work published. Her style, once considered forward-thinking and avant-garde, was now deemed as behind the times by a post-war generation. As her money dried up, she sold her property and eventually moved into a small apartment in the English village of Bude on the Cornish peninsula. She died there on September 18, 1951 at the age of 73. Her possessions were auctioned to settle her debts and she is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Bude.

Pamela Colman Smith’s legacy was nearly forgotten, but there has been a recent revival of interest in work, both by those scholars within the Tarot community as well as the art world. Several recent books have chronicled her life and work, including a recent biography, Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story by Stuart Kaplan. In 2019, The Pratt Institute, where she began her study, honored her with a retrospective titled Pamela Colman Smith: Life and Work.

Smith was her own woman in time when women were just beginning to come into their own. Her talent could not be contained to one medium, nor her interests to one genre. She followed her own path and encouraged others to do the same. In an essay written to inspire young artists, she wrote about the need to not make their work too trite or too charming, advising instead, “I do not mean by charm, prettiness, but an appreciation of beauty. Ugliness is beauty, but with a difference, a nobleness that speaks through all the hard crust of convention.”

Travis Bryant is a lover of magic, mystery, myth, and the power of storytelling. His eclectic explorations have led him to explore the realms of religion, spirituality, communication, and the stories that create community. He earned a BA from Lubbock Christian University and a Master of Science in Communication from the Newhouse School of Communication at Syracuse University. (Married to Kim Bryant and the father of three and grandfather of two), He lives in the greater Houston area where he serves as the Executive Director of PR, Marketing and Communications at Lone Star College-Montgomery.

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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