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Pamela Colman Smith: Tarot Illustrator and Bohemian

The illustrations for the classic Rider-Waite Tarot Deck were painted by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) who also designed and painted theater sets for the likes of William Butler Yeats; she was a writer/publisher of "ballads, pictures, folktales and verses" via her own broadsheet, and designated an "elderly female companion who shared her flat" as her heir.


Here's what the deck itself (released in 1910) has to say:


"She was born February 16, 1878, in Middlesex, England to American parents. Her childhood years were spent between London, New York, and Kingston, Jamaica.


During her teens, she traveled throughout England with the theater company of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Thereafter, she began formal art training at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, graduating in 1897. Although American by birth, she returned to England, where she became a theatrical designer for miniature theater, and an illustrator, mainly of books, pamphlets and posters.


Around 1903, she joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1909, under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite she undertook, for token payment, a series of 78 allegorical paintings described by Waite as a rectified tarot pack. The designs, published in the same year by William Rider and Son, exemplified mysticism, ritual, imagination, fantasy, and deep emotions of the artist.


Despite occasional art shows and favorable reviews by critics, the continued slow sales of her works and rejections by commercial publishers left her deeply disappointed.


She never married. She had no known heirs except for an elderly female companion who shared her flat. She died on September 18, 1951, penniless and obscure. There was no funeral procession to honor her life. There was no memorial service to touch upon the impact her work would one day have upon her admirers. She died disappointed that her paintings and writings failed to achieve success, yet she never stopped believing in herself.

Pamela Colman Smith would all but be forgotten except for the 78 tarot paintings known as the Rider-Waite Tarot pack. She would no doubt be astonished and gladdened to know that today the deck touches the hearts and emotions of millions of people." [From the explanatory card in the deck]


"Ms. Smith was brought up in Jamaica and during her early teens traveled with the stage acting partnership of Terry and Henry Irving. [Note that they have shortened Ellen Terry's name to make it look like she is a male brother of Henry Irving.] By the age of 21 Ms. Smith was established in England as a theatrical designer and illustrator. Her interest in the theater led to her collaboration with William Butler Yeats on stage designs. Subsequently, she worked with his brother Jack Yates on the illustration and publication of a small magazine entitled The Broad Sheet before bringing out her own The Green Sheaf, which was filled with ballads, pictures, folktales, and verses." [Introduction to the instruction booklet, written by Stuart R Kaplan, Stamford, CT 06902, revised February 2004]


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