Pamela Colman-Smith: Pixie and the 78 Watercolor Paintings

It is with great pleasure and with humbled awe that I get to present a blog post on the inimitable and incredible Pamela Colman-Smith, affectionally dubbed Pixie by her friends. I have mentioned her a few times in the previous blog posts as being instrumental and influential to the world of Tarot. I did not however discuss her life or artwork in detail. While it is impossible to describe all of it in just a single blog post, what I will highlight are flourishes and glimmers of magic in her being and in her art, and why we need to honor this beautiful soul who brought Tarot into its modern age. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in! First, who was she? We know the tale: she was the mastermind artist behind the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck that became so iconic and popular as the first, comprehensive modern Tarot deck. The woman behind the artwork was a prolific artist. The mystery and intrigue into her story are almost like taking the journey through the Tarot deck itself. Let’s take a look at Pamela Colman-Smith’s heroine’s journey from the Fool to the World and the beyond.

Corinne Pamela Colman Smith was born on February 16th, 1878 in London to American parents Charles Edward Smith and Corrine Colman Smith. Her ancestry was something of a mystery to many. People perceived her differently based on assumptions they made regarding her looks. Regardless, Pamela impressed others with her personality and talent. She came from a family of writers and artists. Her maternal grandfather was a notable bookseller and publisher. (Foley O’Connor 15) Her maternal grandmother was a great writer in her day. Pamela’s mother was an actress in a private theater. Her father also exhibited artistic tendencies and worked in design. It is easy to see where Pamela gets her talent from, no doubt. Her maternal uncle was an artist himself. (Foley O’Connor 15-17) We see the influences of art, theater, and folkloric storytelling in her works. Pamela was educated at the illustrious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She was only fifteen at the time and by the time she reached the age of nineteen, she had already sold four watercolor paintings and had her first feature exhibition. (Foley O’Connor 21-22)

Pamela was also fascinated by Jamaican folklore. Her family relocated to Jamaica when she was young, and this would serve to cement her artistry, poetry, and ultimately storytelling style in a way that was so uniquely her. She had her fair share of struggles, having to cope with her mother’s illness and death, manage family affairs, and assume responsibilities of that of the head of the household and still work on her art. She was only eighteen! (Foley O’Connor 21) It was also here at this point that she had started work on miniature theater. Her play Henry Morgan was intricate and beautifully designed. She performed it in Brooklyn in addition to Jamaica to positive reception overall. It is quite astonishing to imagine a young woman, a teenager designing art for miniature theater, performing and composing her own play, and juggling family finances simultaneously. This only goes to show her remarkable spirit. She had a lot of ambition for her future and certainly defied all tradition. Pamela was not married, did not have any children, and in fact worked her whole life. In addition to art, she was also a costume designer. She was an enterprising woman, who even when challenged, proved to be a formidable force.

By early 1900, Pamela Colman-Smith had lost both her parents. However, she was constantly seeking new opportunities for artistic and storytelling pursuits. She made friends with people in theater, art, and publishing. In January of 1903, Pamela had launched her own magazine The Green Sheaf. (Foley O’Connor 47) She was influenced by W.B. Yeats and Irish mythology, but in spite of consulting with him, she did not “incorporate his suggestions” (Foley O’Connor 47). However, one can clearly see that her work was the result of a holistic view—one that combined the mundane and the mystical. There were often scenes of realism sprinkled with whimsy. Pamela’s poetry had an evocative, folkloric voice that left a lasting impression. Her book Anansi Tales was filled with such a voice. Though she struggled with finances, she was meticulous in her endeavors and aware of the growing issues. Unfortunately, the magazine was not viable financially. After 1906, Pamela had to come up with a new plan.

Here is where we get to the more magical aspects of Pamela’s works. She produced a series of music pictures. Indeed, by February of 1908, she had produced 98 drawings by her own admission! (Foley O’Connor 60) Pamela would respond to the aesthetics of the music she heard and create images based on that. She even describes the experience as having a vision. “Pamela’s ability to visualize music she heard is one of the most important keys to her artistic ability. It is evident that she had synesthesia.” (Foley O’Connor 60) I believe Pamela had many visions and beyond just colors, she was able to construct vivid images. Several works of hers have such a metaphysical quality to them that they shimmer off the page. I highly recommend picking up this book, Pamela Colman-Smith the Untold Story by Stuart Kaplan along with Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons. Many of Pamela’s beautiful illustrations are preserved in this book, and you get a more intimate look at her life and influences.

Let’s talk about the Tarot, which is what a lot of people most associate her with after all. The imagery in the Tarot has Christian undertones and also utilizes inspiration from the Visconti Tarot. There is a classical style to these paintings. Earlier works by Pamela Colman-Smith reveal her interest in Arthurian themes, early Renaissance styles, and an overall passion for folklore and the use of colors. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck is one that I believe is the most comprehensive since its inception. She not only illustrated the spiritual journey of the Fool to the World in the Major Arcana, but she also subtly threw in some feminist imagery throughout the deck. She was a suffragette. Note her Magician, her Queens, and a few other pip cards. Some of the images are inspired by Pamela’s close friends. (Boyd Parsons 366-7). Pamela Colman-Smith was reported to have been a member of the Golden Dawn though she later converted to Catholicism. Some around her have also surmised she was psychic. She was even associated with spiritualism. It would not surprise me if Pamela Colman-Smith had other-worldly connections her whole life! These are speculations from an earnest seeker, but I do not believe I’m alone in this sentiment. Pamela’s works would go on to influence many Tarot artists—music, psychology, and much more. Her legacy lives on in Tarot, in her folklore, her storytelling. This humble biography is not sufficient enough to describe her life. I may have to create another blog post on her. In the meantime, I hope this garners your interest. Read the book on Pamela if you can. And feel the essence of her magick in the Waite-Smith deck.

Thank you for reading another lengthy blog post! My next one to be published immediately is an astrology forecast from a Vedic standpoint and on the full moon. Blessings beloved readers! Namaste. With love, the Foxy Witch.

Works Cited:

Foley, O’Connor Elizabeth. “Pamela’s Life.” Pamela Colman Smith: An Untold Story. Edited by Lynn Araujo, Jennifer. A. Kaplan, and Paula Palmer. U.S. Game Systems Inc. July 15th, 2018. Stamford, CT.  

Parsons, Boyd Melinda. “Influences & Expression in the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.” Pamela Colman Smith: An Untold Story. Edited by Lynn Araujo, Jennifer. A. Kaplan, and Paula Palmer. U.S. Game Systems Inc. July 15th, 2018. Stamford, CT.