Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie, was born on this day — February 16, 1878. She was a British artist, illustrator, writer, and occultist. She was very involved with the London theatre scene at the turn of the last century, an activist in the women’s suffragette movement, a talented storyteller, and was beloved by a vast circle of artists and visionaries, including W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, A.E. (George William Russell), and many others.
And course every Tarot enthusiast for the last 111 years owes her a debt that can never be overestimated. For it was she who illustrated Arthur Edward Waite’s Tarot deck, and changed the accessibility and understanding of the cards for everyone, forever after.
That deck has been commonly known as the Rider-Waite and is also called the Rider-Waite-Smith.
According to Wikipedia –
When Smith’s tarot was first published by Rider in England, in December 1909, it was simply called Tarot Cards and it was accompanied by Arthur Edward Waite’s guide entitled The Key to the Tarot.
The following year, Waite added Smith’s black-and-white drawings to the book and published it as the Pictorial Key to the Tarot. In 1971, U.S. Games bought the right to publish the deck and published it under the title The Rider Tarot Deck (because of differences in U.S. and U.K. copyright law, the extent of their copyright in the Waite-Smith deck is disputed). In later editions they changed the name to Rider Tarot and then Rider Waite Tarot.
As you know from visiting my blog, knowledgeable Tarot people, as well as most scholars, now make it a point to recognize the importance of her contribution. That’s why most of us have dropped the reference to the publishing company, “Rider,” other than occasionally using the abbreviation RWS, for Rider-Waite-Smith. We prefer calling the deck the Waite-Smith Tarot.
Wikipedia continues –
In the century since the deck’s first printing, there have been dozens of editions put out by various publishers; for some of these the Smith drawings were redrawn by other artists, and for others the cards were rephotographed to create new printing plates.
Many versions have been recolored as the coloration is rather harsh in the original deck, due to the limitations of color printing at the time. One example is the 1968 Albano-Waite tarot, which has brighter colors overlaid on the same-pen and-ink drawings.
Some recent U.S. Games editions have removed Smith’s hand-drawn titles for each card, substituting text in a standard typeface. Altogether, these decks encompass the full range from editions very closely based on the original printings to decks that can at most be termed ‘inspired’ by the Waite-Smith deck.
Waite is often cited as the designer of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but it would be more accurate to consider him as half of a design team, with responsibility for the major concepts, the structure of individual cards, and the overall symbolic system. Because Waite was not an artist himself, he commissioned Smith to create the actual deck.
It is also true that Pixie, like Waite, was a fully fledged member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and so she was empowered to use her own formidable esoteric knowledge and experience in interpreting Waite’s vision, rather than being blindly obedient.
In other words, she was far more than an artist for hire. She was a mystic and visionary in her own right.
Of course, her great innovation for the Tarot was her choice to illustrate the pips of the deck with complex, peopled scenes that featured a rich symbology far beyond the simple objects in previous decks.
For instance, on the left you see the older Marseilles Tarot Six of Cups. On the right is Pixie’s wonderful interpretation:
Mary K. Greer, co-author of Pixie’s most complete biography, tells us that she “wrote nothing about the deck she created except in a letter to her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, ‘I just finished a big job for very little cash!'”
If only Pixie could have lived to see the marvelous results of that job.
To delve more fully into the fascinating, bittersweet story of her life, I urge you to acquire a copy of the gorgeous, comprehensive Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, co-authored by Mary, Stuart Kaplan (president of USGames Systems Inc.), Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons.
Meantime, today, I invite you to join me in taking a moment to send heartfelt gratitude and blessings in memory of this complex, magical, and gifted woman. Thank you, Pixie.