Unsung Heroines: Pamela Coleman Smith by Mary Gelfand


If you happen to’ve ever had a Tarot reading or played with reading cards yourself, you’re probably acquainted with the work of Pamela Coleman Smith, illustrator of the great-grandmother of all contemporary Tarot decks—The Rider Waite Smith Deck. First published in 1909, the illustrations in most contemporary decks are direct descendants of Smith’s work. Yet most individuals who engage with Tarot are unaware of Smith’s significant contribution to the world of Tarot. In my eyes, Pamela Coleman Smith is an Unsung Heroine.  

Smith was born in 1878 to Corrine Coleman, sister of the Hudson Valley School painter Samuel Coleman, and Charles Smith, an American businessman with international interests. The family lived in Manchester, England for a decade after which moved to Jamaica for several years. Smith became fascinated with Jamaican folk tales. One in all her earliest publications, the Annancy Stories, was a retelling of those tales, which she each wrote and illustrated. 

Smith comes by her interest in art and story-telling truthfully.  Each her great-grandparents wrote children’s books and several other other ancestors were notable painters.  Her great uncle was proprietor of an art gallery in NYC.

Returning to the US in adolescence, Smith studied art on the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.  She achieved a good amount of success within the US, illustrating sheet music and Christmas cards, which were sold through the Latest York Gallery that handled her work.  Her drawings were used for instance a few of William Butler Yeats’ work, marking the start of a protracted and productive friendship. Yeats’ belief that folklore was living mythology greatly influenced Smith’s subsequent work.

Smith’s mother died while she was at Pratt and in 1899 she each moved back to England and lost her father, one in all her biggest champions. She was taken under the wing of Ellen Terry, one in all Britain’s best-known actresses, and spent much of her time on the Lyceum Theatre, which was managed by Henry Irving and Bram Stoker.  Smith toured with the Lyceum company, playing bit roles and learning about costume and set design. 

Smith also connected with the daring, shiny and delightful of her generation. She wrote and illustrated broadsheets & magazines and established her own weekly Salon.  The list of now well-known writers and artists who were regular visitors at her Salons includes Irish mystic William Butler Yeats and his brother Jack, J.M. Barrie, writer of Peter Pan, writer and journalist Arthur Ransome, and various other actors, composers, authors, and illustrators. She was affectionately often called Pixie to her friends.

Smith was very desirous about mysticism and the occult. Her mother’s family followed the visionary philosophy of Swedenborg and he or she was influenced by the paranormal elements of the Jamaican folktales she so loved.  Within the early 1900s, her reference to Yeats brought her into contact with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities, was lively in Great Britain in the course of the late 19th & early 20th centuries. Golden Dawn focused on personal spiritual development through the study of the Elements of Life (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), the Kabbalah, astrology, and Tarot. Many concepts of formality and magic practiced today are derived from this Order.

It was here that Smith met Sir Arthur Waite who hired her to create seventy-eight illustrations for the Tarot deck he was developing. For individuals who are unfamiliar with Tarot, there are two parts to most decks—the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.  Major cards represent the nice archetypes of life and were traditionally illustrated with people. Minor cards are divided into 4 suits—Pentacles, Swords, Wands, Cups— representing the Elements of Life and including a royal court of King, Queen, Knight, and Page.  These cards are more about each day living. Historically, Minor cards carried symbols of the suit slightly than pictures of individuals doing things. For instance, the Six of Swords would show six swords.    

Smith and Waite modified that. Waite had the concept that illustrated Minors could be a useful addition to the deck he was developing and gave Smith a comparatively free hand, providing that she “follow very fastidiously the astrological significance of every suit” because it related to the zodiac. 

Smith did far more than that. Drawing on her skill as a storyteller, and her wealthy spiritual, theatrical, and familial background, Smith created a series of related images for every suit that attracts the viewer in with an invite to create a story that’s relevant to them. Her illustrations for the Major Arcana, created with just a little more direction from Waite, are equally engaging. 

The symbolism of the Major cards is amazingly wealthy  and varied. Rachel Pollack, a recent Tarot scholar, offers an in-depth evaluation of every card within the deck in her book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. Pollack’s discussion of card #10–The Wheel of Fortune, points out that it presents symbols of medieval folklore and alchemy in addition to Christian, Jewish, and ancient Egyptian mythology. I especially like that the Queens are presented as strong, powerful women, each holding the essence of her suit. Smith created seventy-eight paintings for the Rider Tarot in a six-month period and was paid little or no.

During World War I, Smith accomplished multiple illustrations designed to support the war effort. She was also involved within the Suffrage Atelier, a collective of illustrators supporting women’s right to vote. 

Sadly, like most Unsung Heroines, after her father’s death, Smith struggled financially for the remainder of her life. Although popular and of an easily recognizable style, Smith’s work never brought her any significant financial or skilled advantages. When she died in 1951, her estate didn’t have enough to cover her debts. 

As a devotee of Tarot, I’m indebted to Pamela Coleman Smith for making a deck I can relate to and use to deepen my understanding of this mystical tool. For me, the strength and power of Smith’s work is shown in the large number of latest decks whose images are derived from Smith’s original creations. Each memorable card provides ample space for private interpretation in addition to creative inspiration to latest artists. To me that’s the essence of brilliance—the work stands by itself merits, and continues to encourage latest generations.

Rider-Waite Tarot deck used with permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. C. 1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.  Rider-Waite is a registered trademark of U.S. Games Systems.

The Artwork & Times of Pamela Coleman Smith, by Stuart R. Kaplan, 2009, U.S. Games Systems.

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, by Rachel Pollack, 1998, Thorsons Publishers.

BIO: Mary Gelfand is an ordained Interfaith Minister and a Wiccan High Priestess. As a Unitarian Universalist, she has served in each local and national leadership roles, including five years as national board president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). She is an experienced teacher of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven—adult education program focused on feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess. A practicing Pagan, her spiritual life is rooted within the cycles and seasons of the natural world that are so abundantly visible in Latest England. She reads, teaches, and preaches about feminist theology, the Great Goddess, mysticism, and the mysteries of Tarot. As a fiber artist, she enjoys weaving tapestry and knitting gifts for strangers and friends.

Categories: General, Herstory, Unsung Heroines, Women’s Voices

Tags: Mary Gelfand, Pamela Coleman Smith, Rachel Pollack, Rider-Waite Tarot, tarot, Unsung Heroines, women’s stories, Women’s voices

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