10 Interesting Facts about Pamela Colman Smith, the Artist of the Rider-Waite Deck

The Rider-Waite tarot is not the oldest deck—we have to go back to the 1400’s for that—but it is recognized as one of the most popular decks of all time and has influenced many tarot artists since its first publication in 1909. The deck was conceived of by Arthur Waite, a member of the occult group, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and was illustrated by artist Pamela Colman Smith, a fellow member of the Golden Dawn whom Waite commissioned. Smith was one of the first artists to incorporate the symbols of the suits into scenes which illustrated the meanings of the minor arcana cards. In decks without illustrated scenes, the minor arcana cards look much like playing cards and are much less accessible for interpretation.

Here are some facts about Pamela Colman Smith:

  1. Smith was born in England to American parents on February 16, 1878. Her father traveled to Jamaica a great deal for work, and she had a deep appreciation for Jamaican culture. She was known to hold soirees where she would tell Jamaican folk tales, dressed in traditional garb.
  2. Her mother died when she was young, and she lived with actress Ellen Terry for many years. She toured with Terry’s theater group and became interested in set and costume design.
  3. Her birth name was Corinne Pamela Colman Smith. Her family called her Pam. There are letters from her late teen years that she signed “Constance” or “Con.” Ellen Terry gave her the nickname, “Pixie” when she was about 21. Even today she is often referred to as Pixie Colman Smith by devotees.
  4. She received formal art training at the Pratt Institute from which she graduated in 1897.
  5. Poet William Butler Yeats and his brother Jack were close friends. She collaborated with Jack Yeats, who was also an artist, on the literary periodical, The Broad Sheet. William Butler Yeats contributed his work to the publication. She also worked with another artist to design scenery for some of William Butler Yeats’ plays. The Yeats family inspired her interest in Celtic folklore, which found its way into her art. It was William Butler Yeats who brought her into the Order of the Golden Dawn around 1903.
  6. Smith painted to visions she saw while listening to music. She would fill a canvas in the course of a song. Dubussy was impressed by the paintings she did of his music and felt they captured the essence of his work.
  7. In 1911, Smith became a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. She remained devoted to the Church for the rest of her life.
  8. Smith died penniless on September 18, 1951 at the age of 73. She had never married and left her estate to her friend Nora Lake with whom she lived, for at least some time, after the war. Sadly, everything was auctioned off to satisfy Smith’s debts.
  9. Smith devoted her life to her art and was disheartened that she never received significant recognition for her talents.
  10. All of the original art work for the Rider-Waite deck was destroyed when London was bombed during World War II.

This information was compiled from a 40-page chapter in The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. III by Stuart R. Kaplan, published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

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5 Responses to “10 Interesting Facts about Pamela Colman Smith, the Artist of the Rider-Waite Deck”

  1. Dan Says:

    Thanks for this bit of information. It is nice to know more of the artist whose art I have become so close to in reading. For some reason the Rider Waite deck is the only one that speaks to me for some reason.
    I have even done a little card art of my own, using cards from the deck. I like to keep as much of the integrity of her work though out of respect to the art of Miss Smith.

  2. Choose your card for the week of 8/24/08 « Tarot Table Talk Says:

    […] your card for the week from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Waite. When making your selection, don’t worry about what the cards mean. Base your […]

  3. Choose your card for the week of 10/19/08 « Tarot Table Talk Says:

    […] your card for the week from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Waite. When making your selection, don’t worry about what the cards mean. Base your […]

  4. Choose your card for the week of 10/18/09 « Tarot Table Talk Says:

    […] That’s Pamela Colman Smith, artist of the classic 1909 Rider-Waite deck, as the Queen of Holy […]

  5. Mary Christianson Says:

    It is really interesting to see how Pamela Colman Smith approaches life and how she appears to others.Really inspiring.

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