Meet the Woman of Color Behind the World's Most Popular Tarot Deck

Meet the Woman of Color Behind the World's Most Popular Tarot Deck

Most magical folks are probably familiar with what is typically known as the Rider-Waite tarot deck, as it has become the iconic face of tarot for more than a hundred years. But did you know that the phenomenal woman of color artist and occultist Pamela Colman Smith played a prominent role in the deck’s creation as its illustrator, yet has received almost no credit throughout the deck’s history?

Born in Pimlico, London in 1878 to a white American merchant father, Charles Edward Smith (son of the mayor of Brooklyn), and a Jamaican mother, Corinne Colman, Pamela Colman Smith grew up living between Britain, the United States, and Jamaica. Her mother was the sister of artist Samuel Colman, and the family appears to have led a somewhat free-spirited lifestyle.

Colman Smith enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York in 1893 at the age of fifteen to study art. However, in 1896 while she was still away at art school, her mother died in Jamaica. Colman Smith was herself intermittently sick as a student. She ultimately left Pratt the following year without a degree, but after having considerably developed her talents as an artist and illustrator.

In 1901, Colman Smith was introduced to the British occultic group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn by celebrated Irish poet William Butler “W.B.” Yates. It was through her membership in the Golden Dawn that she met Arthur Edward “A.E.” White, who commissioned her in 1909 to illustrate all 78 cards for the deck that became known across the world as the Rider-Waite deck. (Rider was the name of the deck’s publisher.)

Colman Smith was the first person to illustrate each card in the minor arcana—the suits of Pentacles, Swords, Cups, and Wands—with its own scene, which fundamentally changed card readers’ relationship to reading tarot.  She remains one of the most important women in the history of the Western metaphysical arts.

Art Career

In 1899, Colman Smith’s father died when she was twenty-one, leaving her without parents entirely. She moved back to England and found work as an illustrator as well as in theatrical design. While living in London she gained the nickname “Pixie.” By 1901 Colman Smith had opened a studio in London that became a gathering place for artists, writers, and actors. At one point she even launched her own magazine called The Green Sheaf, which published thirteen issues beginning in 1903.

In a 1908 article titled “Should the Art Student Think?”, Colman Smith wrote:

“Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! And make other people when they look at your drawing feel it too! … Keep an open mind to all things. Hear all the music you can, good music, for sound and form are more closely connected than we know …

“Think good thoughts of beautiful things, colors, sounds, places, not mean thoughts. When you see a lot of dirty people in a crowd, do not remember only the dirt, but the great spirit that is in them all, and the power that they represent.

“For through ugliness is beauty sometimes found.”

Political Investments and Relationships

Politically speaking, Colman Smith was a suffragist, and she contributed pro-suffragist artwork to the women’s movement.

She also lived with a woman named Nora Lake, who was reputedly a spiritualist, for forty years. Upon her death, Colman Smith left Lake her estate. Colman Smith’s connection to Lake, of course, has left many admirers speculating about her sexuality. While not much is known about her romantic life, she was known to socialize with many people who would be characterized as belonging to the LGBTQ community today. Edith Craig, one of her best friends, was a lesbian or bisexual woman.

Faerie Magazine goes further, referring to Lake as Colman Smith’s “likely lover,” and writing, “[Colman Smith] never married, was linked to no men, and spent her time in the company of women, many of them known queers such as the handsome Edith ‘Edy’ Craig, a bisexual suffragist who famously lived in a ménage-à-trois with a straight couple until her death.”

“Craig,” Faerie Magazine claims, “was also the model for the Queen of Wands in Colman Smith’s tarot.”

The Price of Erasure

Despite Colman Smith playing a prominent role in the first mass-produced tarot deck, which would go on to popularize tarot across the world, she, unlike Waite, received only a small payment and no access to royalties. She reportedly wrote in a letter to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she knew from having exhibited her artwork in his New York gallery, “I’ve just finished a big job for very little cash!”

Somewhat inexplicably, by 1911 Colman Smith had converted to Catholicism. After moving to Cornwall, UK in 1918, not much is known about her life until her 1951 death from heart disease in Bude, Cornwall. She died in debt, living in a house she had purchased with inheritance money from her uncle, and her remaining artwork and other possessions were auctioned to pay off her remaining debts.

The fact that Colman Smith was denied her financial due during her lifetime cannot be divorced from the realities of structural racism and sexism. As ShaVaughn Elle writes for Medium, “The erasure of Pamela Colman Smith is beyond a woman being erased[;] it’s a further perpetuation of Black women being erased from the metaphysical and spiritual communities.”

“Even the cards over the years,” Elle claims, “were slowly white-washed from the original brown shade they once were.”

According to Beth Maiden, writer at Autostraddle and maven behind the Little Red Tarot blog, “The boss of US Games, who continue to publish her deck, says she could have been a millionaire today.”

Although it came far too late for Colman Smith to benefit from in life, in recent years, acknowledgment of her contributions to the tarot has emerged. A growing movement to refer to the tarot deck of her design as the Smith-Waite deck, rather than the Rider-Waite deck, is heartening.

However we decide to commemorate Colman Smith, her impact on Western mysticism can no longer be denied. As a model for women, and especially women of color, let’s speak her name as we continue to study the lessons of her visually sumptuous cards.

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