I’ve been thinking a lot about honouring ancestors lately.
What does that even mean? Wikipedia and dictionary.com define ancestor as
any person from whom one is descended. In law the person from whom an estate has been inherited.
I like this idea of inheriting an estate – not so much legally, as spiritually and intellectually.
At this time of year, it’s important to make time to say thank you to our ancestors for the gifts they passed down to us.
One person to whom I owe limitless thank-yous is Pamela Colman Smith.
For those who don’t know that very ubiquitous name, Pamela Colman Smith was the artist behind the most popular tarot deck in the western world, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (RWS). Without her, my life would be completely and utterly different. I probably would never have ‘discovered’ tarot – I certainly wouldn’t have been introduced to it in the awesome way that I was. In this way, I feel that I ‘inherited an estate’ from her, as have many (most, even) tarot lovers, and this is why I want to honour her now.
When I received my first tarot reading (from no less that fabulous zinester-fisherwoman Moe Bowstern), Colman Smith’s illustrations utterly captivated me. I remember Moe pointing out symbols on the cards (“this little rabbit – this represents all of your little helpers in life”) and wanting to understand them the way that she did. The characters shown on those cards were intriguing. The way they were drawn, coloured, adorned… who were they, where had they come from? Whose mind had created them?
About Pamela Colman Smith
Pamela Colman Smith was born in London 1878, the only child of an American father and a Jamaican mother. She did a lot of her growing up moving between Manchester, London, Brooklyn (New York) and Kingston, Jamaica.
Her family were arty, theatrical types and after her mother died Colman Smith joined a theatre group, spending the next five year on stage, touring the US with them. That must have been incredible! And it had a powerful influence on her work – with its bizarre costumes and often very ‘staged’ settings, many of the RWS tarot cards have a very theatrical feel.
A drawing by Colman Smith of herself (left) and others in the theatre company (the man is Bram Stoker!) drawn on a transatlantic crossing in 1900. She was 22.
Colman Smith studied to be an artist (at the experimental, avant-garde Pratt Institute in Brooklyn) but didn’t get her degree – nonetheless she became an illustrator providing artwork for WB Yeats, Bram Stoker and more. Some pretty big stuff! She wrote and published several books (including an illustrated collection of Jamaican folk tales) 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.
She was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and provided poster and cartoon artwork to the movement as part of the Suffrage Atelier – a group of political artists.
If you Google Pamela Colman Smith, you might uncover speculation about her sexual orientation. What you don’t find is pretty much anything about her romantic life. Personally, I’m certain she was as queer as nine bob note, but no-one knows for sure.
She certainly did share her household in the later years with a Mrs Nora Lake (to whom she left her entire estate), but as K. Frank Jensen points out, “…but at that time it was not unusual that two single women lived together to support each other and share expenses, without it necessarily indicating lesbianism.” Yes, one of her best friends was Edith Craig [pictured in the ‘pirates’ sketch above] who was a lesbian. Yes, her circle of friends did encompass many men and women who were homosexuals. Yes, she was eccentric. Yes, she did design feminist political posters (during her activity in the women’s suffrage movement), and finally: yes, she never did marry. Any possible intimate relationships of hers remain equally unknown.
So there you go.
Aside from the tarot deck, Colman Smith’s most notable works were synesthetic, meaning that ‘senses are blended’. In Colman Smith’s 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. They’re amazing, mystical and beautiful.
Chromatic Fantasy, after Bach
Illustrating the tarot
In 1901, Colman Smith joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult society. Here she met Arthur Edward Waite, with whom she co-created the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Arthur Crowley, creator of the Thoth Tarot. The group later disbanded and Colman Smith and Waite both ended up in a splinter organisation, and meanwhile, he asked her to illustrate the tarot he had conceived. Colman Smith was largely left to her own devices in terms of the card illustrations, particularly the minors. She was the first person to illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their own, (apart from one Italian deck – The Sola-Busca – created in 1491) rather than simply showing two cups, or six swords – this was a groundbreaking idea which has changed the way many people see tarot today.
She had her own ideas about how the cards should be read, which are echoed in today’s ‘learn tarot’ books:
Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose… First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body… After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details … Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! … Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.
From ‘Should the Art Student Think?’ published in The Craftsman, July 1908
The deck was published first by Sprague and Co, and then by Rider and Son in 1909 costing six shillings. It was a Big Deal. There weren’t any mass-market tarot decks (most tarotists used the Tarot of Marseille and that was pretty rare) – this was the deck that began the popularisation of tarot.
With all of this, you would think Pamela Colman Smith would be a widely-celebrated person. Shockingly, she received barely any money at all – little payment and no royalties – for the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, whilst Waite naturally enjoyed fame and financial comfort. She made various attempts to make money throughout her life but none succeeded. In 1918 she moved to Cornwall, and little is known about her from this point onwards. She died penniless 1951.
I’m writing this post as a way of saying thank you.
Pamela Colman Smith will never know how beloved she now is in the tarot community, how many decks of her cards have been sold, how her artwork is the most often-seen in the tarot. The boss of US Games, who continue to publish her deck, says she could have been a millionaire today. As it is, her tarot deck and many of her other works are an example of women’s work and art and contributions being continually brushed under the carpet, continually undervalued, unpaid, taken for granted.
But Pamela Colman Smith was awesome. She never sold out – and perhaps she had the chance to. She was an amazingly original person, a creatrix, a boundary-pusher and a mystic, and from where I’m standing, it looks like she lived an amazing life of adventure and passion.
Without her work, I wouldn’t be a tarot reader, I’m pretty sure of that. Without her work, many others reading this wouldn’t either. Her art and vision and unpaid work opened up so many doors into tarot and was a massive part of bringing about a revolution in tarot reading that makes it so easy to learn and acceptable to practice today. I think her artwork is incredible. Mystical, dramatic, colourful, symbolic, original, beautiful, disturbing and very powerful. I am so grateful that she lived, and that she created these amazing cards I use every day.
References and further reading
I’ve drawn information from a whole bunch of sources to compile this post:
Holly Voley’s whole big brilliant website about Pamela Colman Smith – I think she might be her biggest fan.
The Works of Pamela Colman Smith – a gallery.
A weird BBC page about Colman Smith, which also says that she was ‘blessed with exotic looks from her mixed ethnicity’ – I doubt very much that she always experienced this as a ‘blessing’.