Pamela Colman Smith was the artist behind the most popular tarot deck in the western
world, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.
As an artist, she changed the face of tarot, illustrating the world’s
first “mass market” deck. And hers was one of the very first to have
illustrations on every card in the deck.
She was born in 1878 in London and was the only child of
an American father and a Jamaican mother. She grew up moving between
Manchester, London, Brooklyn and Kingston.
Her family were arty theatrical types, and after her mother died, Pamela Colman
Smith joined a theatre group, spending the next five years on
stage, touring the US and abroad with them.
She also worked as a set designer, and it had a powerful influence on her work with its bizarre costumes and often very staged settings, many of her tarot cards have a very theatrical feel.
Smith studied to be an artist at the experimental, avant-garde Pratt
Institute in Brooklyn, but didn’t graduate. Nonetheless, she became
an illustrator providing artwork for WB Yeats, Bram Stoker and more.
She wrote and published several books, including an
illustrated collection of Jamaican folk tales, Anancy, which is still
published today, and started her own magazine. She provided the artwork for
posters for all kinds of events, and exhibited her work in a prestigious
gallery in New York City.
Aside from the tarot deck, Smith’s most notable works were
‘synesthetic,’ meaning that senses are ‘blended.’ In her
case, she was able to ‘see music.’ Sound and music created powerful visuals
in her imagination and she was able to translate these into paintings.
Illustrating the Tarot
In 1901, Smith joined The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a
British occult society.
Here Smith met Arthur Edward Waite who later asked her to
illustrate the tarot he had conceived.
Smith was the first person to
illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their
own, rather than simply showing two cups, or six swords. This was a
groundbreaking idea which has changed the way many people see tarot today.
The deck was published by Rider and Son in
1909. This was the deck that began the popularization of tarot.
Her original drawings were pen and ink only.