Artist Rewind: Nineteenth-Century Illustrator Pamela Colman Smith

Illustration by Catherine Willett

Illustration by Catherine Willett

Bed-Stuy-based illustrator Catherine Willett brings to light the work and impact of nineteenth-century artist Pamela Colman Smith.

Pamela Colman Smith (1878 - 1951) was a remarkable artist who changed the course of the practice of tarot reading as we know it. Born on February 16, 1878 in England, Pamela grew up during a time when being an illustrator was an unlikely career path for a woman. Nevertheless, she pursued her artistic instincts and became a highly prolific stage designer, puppeteer, storyteller, performer, author, and illustrator.

When her mother died at a young age, and her father was away traveling as a merchant, Pamela toured England under the supervision of her guardian Ellen Terry—a family friend and an accomplished Shakespearean actress of the era. It was through this experience that Pamela developed a love for the theatre, and learned how to draw. She would sketch actors on stage, and became very skilled at drawing people in scenes quickly, while capturing the movement and energy of the performers.

At the young age of fifteen, Pamela was accepted to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to study art, but left three years later, before graduating, to travel to Jamaica with her father. While she was in Jamaica, she ran a kindergarten where she looked after over 100 small children and created miniature theaters for her students to play with. Here she grew a deep love for storytelling which she channeled through the rest of her life.

As an adult, rather than finding a husband who could support her financially, Pamela decided to live on her own and work odd jobs to survive, all while constantly creating. She developed many close friendships along the way, and became a staple of London’s bohemian scene, opening up her home to host other notable artists and writers of the time.

In 1907, Pamela became the first woman to be exhibited at the renowned Gallery 291 in Manhattan, curated by the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Two years later, at the age of thirty-one, Pamela Colman Smith accepted a commission which would prove to become the most significant work of her career. After following Arthur Edward Waite, a mystic and scholar for six years, Waite approached Smith with his idea for an illustrated tarot deck. The job was an important mix of Smith’s interests in astrology, her experiments with magic and the occult, as well as illustrative artwork.

Completing approximately eighty drawings in only six months, Smith’s work was printed in December of 1909, the same year that she received the job. However, when the deck was printed, it was titled the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, and did not include her name or mention Pamela’s impressive efforts.

Despite the lack of recognition Pamela received at the time she created the deck, it still remains the most popular tarot deck today, and has been reprinted countless times. Her bold and vivid imagery helped people to connect to the practice of tarot in a way that no deck before had.

When the tarot deck was completed, Pamela’s interests shifted to the realm of women’s rights. Using her artistic influence to support women’s right to vote, Smith joined London’s Suffrage Atelier which consisted of an artist collective organized to create suffragette propaganda through art. In addition to creating illustrated posters, broadsides, and printed cards to support the movement, Smith was also able to use her teaching skills to mentor younger members. We can honor Pamela by thinking of her when we practice tarot, or when we vote in an election. Her imaginative and beautiful artwork continues to inspire both tarot practitioners and artists today.

- Catherine Willett