Queen of Tarot

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Pamela Colman Smith

08/04/2012 at 11:50 AM

Tags history golden dawn rider waite smith the hermetic tradition 1878 cartomancy

Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951)
Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951)
Pamela Colman Smith was the skilled artist and seer who was commissioned by fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite, to illustrate the entire 78 card Tarot deck to his exact specifications, so that any variation introduced would not be her fault. She was apparently paid very little for the job:

TMA: You've been doing research on Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who did the Rider-Waite Tarot deck? SK: Yes. She was born in Middlesex, England in 1878 and lived in London, New York and also in Kingston, Jamaica. She is the one that actually did the Rider-Waite illustrations; she did them for Rider and Company in 1909. It became very interesting that her deck was the first that ever had full images on the pip cards, being the one to ten, the four suits, Swords, Wands, Cups and Coins. She had joined the Golden Dawn [an English occult fraternity], she had worked with Arthur Edward Waite [a writer of the occult]. Alfred Stieglitz selected her art as the first non-photographic work to be shown at the gallery called 291 on Madison Avenue. In 1907 he showed her work. She became friendly with him and before Georgia O'Keefe died, I wrote to her and got permission to reproduce the letter that Pamela Colman Smith sent Alfred Stieglitz in 1909 or 1910 telling him that she had just done a big job of 78 illustrations for very little money. That was the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The original letter is at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. (From an Interview with Stuart Kaplan of Rider & Co., )

Colman Smith spent much of her early years traveling around England with the Lyceum Theatre Group, which may have influenced her aesthetic sense. After she completed art school, she continued to work in the theater industry. In 1903 she joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which is where she met Waite. Together, Waite's text and Smith's gorgeous illustrations revolutionized the world of Tarot. Ironically, however, Waite does not seem to have succeeded in his attempts to convince the world that the Tarot is a secret language of the Illuminati, even though the deck he envisioned is even today the single most common and influential deck in use. A great many decks are, in essence, nothing more than re-drawings of the Colman-Smith plates. In 1911, Rider published 'The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination' in London. This was essentially a second edition of the first book, with the addition of Pamela Colman Smith's illustrations. In 1971, US Games printed a nearly-verbatim copy of Pamela Colman Smith's Tarot illustrations with a new back and a simplified, less realistic version of the colors they were initially printed with (Smith did not do any of the colors herself, apparently). They vigorously protect their copyright of that 1971 'recoloring', as well as their box and back designs, so for that reason we cannot display this company's cards for you to see. Instead, we use only the cards from the 1911 book, which is public domain in the United States.