The Story Of The Woman Who Created Our Modern View Of Tarot

The Story Of The Woman Who Created Our Modern View Of Tarot

If you've ever seen a Tarot deck, you'll know Pamela Colman Smith's work.

I find it incredibly interesting how our generation is so fascinated by the occult and all it entails. Unlike the previous generation, we millennials are more drawn to horoscopes, tarot, divination, constellations, and other occult practices to the point that many websites and media offer us immediate and instant information to satisfy that interest. After some research, I reached the conclusion that one of the main reasons is that, since science and technology have given us so many facts about life, we want to have a little mystery and the element of surprise. For that matter, anything that can give us non-factual answers about our lives has become a source of interest for our generation.

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To start getting into the subject that concerns us, let’s take tarot for instance. I remember that not that long ago, tarot was seen as an occult divination practice that only a few turned to for answers about their future. Today, that's all changed: a lot of people are interested in learning how to read it, and you can find tarot decks almost everywhere with all kinds of designs. And since we’re also a generation driven by nostalgia who loves learning about the origins of the things we love, during my research, I came across the story of the woman who gave us the visual imagery of modern tarot but was never recognized for it, and whose story faded into oblivion. 

Born in England in 1878, Pamela Colman Smith (also known as Pixie) always showed a great interest and talent for the visual arts. After spending some of her childhood years in Jamaica, she decided to move to Brooklyn at the age of 15 to study art and illustration at the renowned Pratt Institute. However, although she learned quite a lot and perfected her technique, her time there wasn’t that enjoyable for her. She was dealing with some health issues, and just three years after she started her studies, her mother passed away in Jamaica, forcing her to drop out of the Institute. Still, she managed to make a living with her illustrations and art, and even made some illustrations to support the Suffragettes movement in America.

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Beethoven's Sonata No. 11 (1907)

After her father’s death in 1899, she decided to go back to England, where her life was going to change quite a lot. She started working as a designer for a small theatre in London. Soon later, her work got some recognition and reached the hands of Ellen Terry, a renowned actress from the Lyceum Theatre group who became quite close to Colman. This relationship later led her to meet Henry Irving and Bram Stoker, with whom she traveled around England, creating theatre costumes and stage designs. Her increasing popularity and career allowed her to open her own studio, considered to be one of the main venues of London’s vie bohème.

Through very interesting friendships like Stoker and Yeats,’ Colman was introduced into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, created by the famous occultist Aleister Crowley, and that's where she got really interested in that world. There she met Arthur Edward Waite, a poet who was also into esoterism and the occult. He wished to create a new Tarot deck that would adapt to modern life, and he wanted Colman's unique style on it. Along with a complimentary book written by Waite, Colman’s Tarot illustrations were first issued in 1909, and they're now considered one of the main modern tarot decks and the inspiration for many that have appeared since. 

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So, if it was such a success, why wasn’t Pamela Colman given the proper credit? At the time, these decks were named after the creator and the brand that issued them. For that matter, it came to be known as the Rider-Waite Tarot, while the illustrations (though they have her signature) weren’t even mentioned. Nowadays, in order to recognize her work, the deck is sometimes called the Waite-Smith Tarot, although it has never been the official name.

What’s really sad is that, despite the influential friendships she made and her amazing work as a book illustrator and author, she never got the recognition nor fame she wanted. After inheriting some money that allowed her to buy a house in Cromwell, she decided to convert to Catholicism and start a new business, by creating a vacation home for Catholic priests next to her house. However, she ended up with huge debts that consumed her for the rest of her life. She passed away in 1951 at the age of 73 almost in bankruptcy. All her art and belongings were sold to pay her debts. 

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In recent times, her name and work have been showcased in exhibitions and books, but still, she’s more of an obscure historical character whose name should be more heard about, not only because she designed the most iconic and recognizable tarot deck ever, but also because her amazing works of art were just as fascinating as the story of her life. 


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