The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck is one of the most well-known and widely-used decks around the world, used by beginners and veteran Tarot users alike. Yet it is also the deck that omits the truth and fails to honour the very “creator” whose energy and essence prevails throughout the deck. That omission is the recognition of Pamela Colman Smith – illustrator, occultist, and children’s book author – the very artist behind the most popular tarot deck in the western world, who also happens to be a woman of colour.
The unsung artist Pamela Colman Smith changed the face of tarot, illustrating the world’s first “mass market” deck. The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck, as it has sometimes been referred to as and should be formally recognised as, was one of the very first to have illustrations on every card in the deck.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in London 1878, the only child of an American father and a Jamaican mother. She grew up moving between Manchester, London, Brooklyn (New York) and Kingston (Jamaica).
Nicknamed Pixie, Pamela Colman Smith was an early-20th-century illustrator inspired as much by 19th-century symbolists as Art Nouveau. Prior to illustrating the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck, Pamela Colman Smith had explored many of her artistic endeavours and talents having travelled with a theatre group as a set designer; collaborated with the likes of WB Yeats and Bram Stoker as an illustrator; published, collected, and illustrated Jamaican stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and had her artwork exhibited in galleries in New York City.
She had achieved a pretty impressive portfolio of work by the turn of the century. All during a time period when women, especially women of colour, were disregarded and deemed worthless.
In 1901, Pamela Colman Smith joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult society. Here she met Arthur Waite, with whom she co-created the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Arthur Crowley, creator of the Thoth Tarot. The group later disbanded and Colman Smith and Arthur Waite both ended up in a splinter organisation, and meanwhile, he asked her to illustrate the tarot he had conceived. Arthur Edward Waite had already published numerous books before embarking on a tarot project – volumes on alchemy and black magic as well as explorations of the work of famous mystics.
The occult writer in 1909 paid Pamela Colman Smith a flat fee to illustrate the 78 cards of the tarot. She was largely left to her own devices in terms of the card illustrations, particularly the minors. The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot was notable for being one of the first tarot decks to illustrate all 78 cards fully, not only the 22 major arcana cards.
Pamela Colman Smith was the first person to illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their own. It is known that the inspiration for this deck was partly provided by Sola-Busca Tarot (Northern Italy, 1491) – the first and only fully illustrated Tarot deck up to the time of publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.
Pamela Colman Smith finished the deck, a total of 80 cards, in just six months. In a letter to her friend and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she wrote: “I’ve just finished a big job for very little cash!”
The deck was published first by Sprague and Co, and then by Rider and Son in 1909 costing six shillings. While there were no mass-market tarot decks around at the time – some tarot users used the Tarot of Marseille but that too was rare – the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck quickly became heralded as “the deck that began the popularisation of tarot”.
A woman who created the world’s most popular tarot deck, one would have hoped would have been “living the life of Riley” at that time. However, Pamela Colman Smith received barely any money at all – little payment and no royalties – for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, and even less credit for the huge contribution she had made as the deck quickly became known as the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. All this while, Arthur Edward Waite enjoyed fame and financial comfort.
After the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck was published, Patricia Colman Smith made various attempts to make money throughout her life but none succeeded. In 1918 she moved to Cornwall, and little is known about her from that point onwards. She died penniless in 1951.
Patricia Colman Smith’s artwork and her story has been an inspiration for many – from tarot users to female artists the world over. Undervalued, under-paid and taken for granted, Patricia Colman Smith’s story is one that is also exemplary of some of the cards she illustrated – largely the suit of swords including the 5 of Swords and 7 of Swords.
For anyone, and especially those who work in the fields of psychic work, divination, spiritual life coaching, healing, and mind, body and soul wellbeing will know the importance of psychic protection and energy healing in their life. Looking at Pamela Colman Smith’s life story and some of the company she kept, it is evident that she was constantly being bombarded by negative interferences and influences, and under psychic attack for much of her life.
It is understood that Pamela Colman Smith converted to Catholicism in 1911, two years after the world’s most famous tarot deck was first published. An about turn for the occultist, who had quite clearly been following her intuition in her earlier years. She even urged friends to join in her converting, as she told them that the Catholic Church was “such fun!”.
While the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck project may be viewed as Pamela Colman Smith’s downfall in light of her mistreatment and exploitation, it is also her legacy. Although she worked from a short list of Arthur Waite’s ideas of what the cards should represent, the tarot deck really does reflect her own psychic awareness combined with her artistic talent.
The role of Arthur Waite in the creation of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck is often over-inflated, with many citing him as the designer. He wrote the deck’s accompanying pamphlet, entitled Key to the Tarot, and had the concept, a structure of the original cards. However, Arthur Waite was not an artist himself, and the talented and intuitive Pamela Colman Smith added so much more to the deck.
Rosalind Medea is an Intuitive Reader, who does intuitive readings, tarot readings, spiritual life coaching, and Twin Flame/Twin Soul guidance. Personal tarot readings with Rosalind are now available via Patreon. Rosalind can also be found writing about sustainable lifestyle and living for Life & Soul Magazine.