“Pamela Colman Smith, also nicknamed Pixie, was a British artist, illustrator, writer, publisher, and occultist. She is best known for illustrating the Rider-Waite tarot deck (also called the Rider-Waite-Smith or Waite-Smith deck) for Arthur Edward Waite. This tarot deck became the standard among tarot card readers, and remains the most widely used today. Colman also illustrated over 20 books, wrote two collections of Jamaican folklore, edited two magazines, and ran the Green Sheaf Press, a small press focused on women writers.
Smith was born at 28 Belgrave Road in Pimlico, part of central London. She was the only child of an American merchant from Brooklyn, New York, Charles Edward Smith, son of Brooklyn mayor Cyrus Porter Smith, and his wife Corinne Colman, sister of the painter Samuel Colman. The family was based in Manchester for the first decade of Smith’s life, but they moved to Jamaica when Charles Smith took a job in 1889 with the West India Improvement Company (a financial syndicate involved in extending the Jamaican railroad system). The Smiths lived in the capital, Kingston, for several years, travelling to London and New York.
By 1893, Smith had moved to Brooklyn, where, at the age of 15, she enrolled at the Pratt Institute, which had been founded six years earlier. There she studied art under Arthur Wesley Dow, painter, print maker, photographer, and influential arts educator. Her mature drawing style shows clear traces of the visionary qualities of fin-de-siècle Symbolism and the Romanticism of the preceding Arts and Crafts movement. While Smith was in art school, her mother died in Jamaica, in 1896. Smith herself was ill on and off during these years and in the end left Pratt in 1897 without a degree. She became an illustrator; some of her first projects included The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats, a book on the actress Ellen Terry by Bram Stoker, and two of her own books, Widdicombe Fair and Fair Vanity (a reference to Vanity Fair).
In 1899 her father died, leaving Smith at the age of 21 without either parent. She returned to England that year, continuing to work as an illustrator, and branching out into theatrical design for a miniature theatre. In London, she was taken under the wing of the Lyceum Theatre group led by Ellen Terry (who is said to have given her the nickname ‘Pixie’), Henry Irving, and Bram Stoker and traveled with them around the country, working on costumes and stage design. In 1901, she established a studio in London and held a weekly open house for artists, authors, actors, and others involved with the arts. Arthur Ransome, then in his early 20s, describes one of these “at home” evenings, and the curious artistic circle around Smith, in his 1907 Bohemia in London.
Smith wrote and illustrated two books about Jamaican folklore: Annancy Stories (1899) and Chim-Chim, Folk Stories from Jamaica (1905). These books included Jamaican versions of tales involving the traditional African folk figure Anansi the Spider. She also continued her illustration work, taking on projects for William Butler Yeats and his brother, the painter Jack Yeats. She illustrated Bram Stoker’s last novel, The Lair of the White Worm in 1911, and Ellen Terry’s book on Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Russian Ballet in 1913.
Smith supported the struggle for the right to vote, and through the Suffrage Atelier, a collective of professional illustrators, she contributed artwork to further the cause of women’s suffrage in Great Britain. Additionally, Smith donated her services for more poster designs and toys to the Red Cross during World War I.
In 1903, Smith launched her own magazine under the title The Green Sheaf, with contributions by Yeats, Christopher St John (Christabel Marshall), Cecil French, A. E. (George William Russell), Gordon Craig (Ellen Terry’s son), Dorothy Ward, John Todhunter, and others. The Green Sheaf survived for a little over a year, a total of 13 issues.
Discouraged by The Green Sheaf‘s lack of financial success, Colman shifted her efforts towards setting up a small press in London. In 1904, she established The Green Sheaf Press which published a variety of novels, poems, fairy tales, and folktales until at least 1906, mostly by women writers.
In 1907, Alfred Stieglitz gave an exhibition of Smith’s paintings in New York at his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (also known as gallery 291), making Smith the first painter to have a show at what had been until then a gallery devoted exclusively to the photographic avant-garde. Stieglitz was intrigued by Smith’s synaesthetic sensibility; in this period, Smith would paint visions that came to her while listening to music. The show was successful enough that Stieglitz issued a platinum print portfolio of 22 of her paintings and showed her work twice more, in 1908 and 1909. Some Smith works that did not sell remained with Stieglitz and ended up in the Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive at Yale University.
Yeats introduced Smith to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which she joined in 1901 and in the process met Waite. When the Golden Dawn splintered due to personality conflicts, Smith moved with Waite to the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn (or Holy Order of the Golden Dawn). In 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to produce a tarot deck with appeal to the world of art, and the result was the unique Waite-Smith tarot deck. Published by William Rider & Son of London, it has endured as the world’s most popular 78-card tarot deck. The innovative cards depict full scenes with figures and symbols on all of the cards including the pips, and Smith’s distinctive drawings have become the basis for the design of many subsequent packs.
Apart from book illustration projects and the tarot deck, her art found little in the way of commercial outlets after her early success with Stieglitz in New York. Several examples of her works done in gouache were collected by her cousin, the American Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette, and may be found today prominently displayed in his castle in Connecticut.
In 1911, Smith converted to Catholicism. After the end of the First World War, Smith received an inheritance from an uncle that enabled her to lease a house on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, an area popular with artists. For income, she established a vacation home for Catholic priests in a neighboring house. Her longtime friend, Nora Lake, joined her in Cornwall and helped to run the vacation home.
After several years of financial difficulty, Smith left the Lizard and relocated first to Exeter in 1939, and then to Bude in the early 1940s. Although she continued writing and illustrating, she was unable to find publishers for her work, likely due to changes in public taste following the First World War. Smith died in her apartment at the Bencoolen House in Bude on September 18, 1951. Her possessions were auctioned off to pay her debts. The location of her gravesite is unknown, but it is likely that she was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Bude.”