Pamela Colman Smith was a gifted artist who had a love of the occult. She illustrated the worlds best known tarot cards, as well as books by Bram Stoker, WB Yeats AND she contributed artworks for the women’s suffrage movement!
And yet, her works are often overlooked; she even gets omitted from her own tarot.
A Well Travelled Lady!
Pamela (known as Pixie to her mates) was born in Pimlico in 1878, her family then moved to Manchester before heading to Kingston, Jamaica when she was 10.
Pixie became engrossed in Jamaican culture and folklore, something that would influence her work throughout her career, she even wrote and illustrated a book of Jamaican folk tales, called Annancy that’s still in print today!
In 1893 her family moved to Brooklyn and Pixie went to the very fancy Avant Garde Pratt institute to study art and illustration.
Sadly she had horrific health issues throughout her three years there and thus never graduated.
BUT Pixie was a ridiculously talented student; even without a degree she immediately started getting paid work as an illustrator (which as any one who has ever done art degree will tell you, is stupidly impressive!)
One of Pixies first paid gigs was working with Bram Stoker (Y’know that goth bloke who wrote Dracula)
This proved to be a really enriched and satisfying partnership, with Pixie illustrationshis book on famed Shakespearian actress Ellen Terry and then his final book The Lair of the White Worm.
Pixie had a knack of partnering her work up with equally amazing writers; WB Yeats (imaginatively titled) The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats
A Change of Scenery
Sadly Pixie’s beloved mother passed away in 1896 and needing a change Pixie joined a travelling theatre group as a set designer (as you do)
This period really influenced her artwork with grand theatrics, bold prints and colours galore.
While doing all these varied projects our girl still found time to support women’s suffrage.
She provided artwork to the cause in America, coming up with bold and simple designs that got the message across.
Her friendship with Bram Stoker and W B Yeats led Pixie to becoming a member of the occult loving group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1901.
The group, made famous by Alistair Crawley, had a fascination for all things occult, supernatural and weird.
And it’s this world of all things creepy that would influence Pixie in her most famous work!
The Raider Waite Smith Tarot
Arthur Edward Waite was a fellow member of Golden Dawn and he took an interest in Pixie’s artwork; see he wanted to created a new tarot deck that would help bring tarot into the mainstream; he reckoned Pixie was the artist for the job!
Quick explanation of what tarot is for those of you unfamiliar: Tarot cards are a deck of usually 78 individual cards used for foretelling and insight. You have the main arcana made up of 22 cards and a set of minor arcana split between wands, swords, pentacles and cups. Each card has a different meaning and by grouping cards selected at random you can compose a story or reading for yourself or another person.
Pixie was given free reign to re vamp tarot and she really sunk her teeth into it.
She came up with a set of theatrical cards that really refined each one’s individual meaning. The most astonishing feat is Pixie was able to create the entire deck, almost 80 individual pieces of art in just 6 months!
Waite wrote a book to accompany the set and it was first published in 1909 by publishing house Rider.
The deck went on to become the most popular and recognised tarot deck in the world, it’s just referred to usually as the Rider Waite Tarot, often omitting Pixies name.
WHICH IS A FUCKING TRAVESTY!
As so many of these stories do, Pixie’s had a bit of a shit ending. She moved to Cornwall and died in obscurity as a pauper in 1951.
And yet, in such a short space of time Pixie had an incredibly diverse and interesting career that spanned across multiple art forms.
It’s a travesty that she isn’t recognised for her work, particularly with bringing tarot into the mainstream and giving the cards new life.
That was interesting, how can I find out more?
Well if you fancy reading some of Pamela’s work her storybook Annancy Stories is still in print. And if tarot has peaked your interest Macus Katz and Tali Goodwin have written an interesting guide on the Waite Smith Tarot that includes more of Pamela’s history and influences.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.