My first contact with Tarot cards was in California during the summer of 1968, at the age of nineteen. Well, that was certainly at an appropriate place and time! It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s connection with Tarot, and aroused my latent interest in divination – a way of gaining insight into the world which surrounds us, and a perspective on what the future might hold. My long-term interest in Tarot has been centred mainly on the traditional ‘Marseilles’ pack, with its vigorous images that have been passed down through France, Spain and Italy for hundreds of years.
However, it was a different set of cards which was revealed to me that sunny day in California. This is what I recalled:
‘When I first set eyes on the Tarot cards, they blazed a trail like a comet in my imagination. They hinted at another world, beyond our normal senses, and I knew instinctively that the Tarot could lead me into this realm…. Jo spread out the pack for me. It was a revelation. He used the Rider-Waite pack, created by author A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably the most popular pack in use today…Every card, including the suits of the Minor Arcana, is represented as a pictorial image, and is rich in symbolism… It is a very vivid, very bright pack. I fell in love with it. I felt that each card was a portal through which I could enter a magical world.
‘Jo’s reading has gone deep into my memory – so deep that I can’t actually recall what he told me! But its impact changed my perceptions radically, and from now on, the Tarot was imprinted on my psyche.’
(Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration, 2016, pp17-18)
I first learnt to read Tarot with the Waite pack, and even when I later prioritised the Marseilles Tarot, the Rider-Waite pack was never far from my mind or indeed my grasp. I keep a set to hand.
But although I delved deep into the symbolism of the Rider-Waite cards, I didn’t think much further about the artist who had painted them – Pamela Colman Smith. In 1909, A. E. Waite, a renowned esoteric scholar and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had commissioned her to create these, under his guidance. They were published by Rider later that year. As has been the case with many female co-creators, her name did not achieve the same prominence as his. Until recently, that is, when her part in the project has been acknowledged far more widely. The pack today is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith pack – something of a mouthful, but fairer to someone who played an essential role in bringing these visionary cards to fruition. It has remained the best-selling, and best-loved Tarot pack in the world, becoming much more widely known after it was re-published in the 1970s.
My own connection with her Tarot cards has had a recent boost, when I found a Rider-Waite pack in a charity shop, of a different vintage to the one I already owned. This one has more beautiful, mellow colours than my existing pack, and looks older, although in fact the edition was published in 1993, later than my first pack from the early ‘70s. It also uses the original pattern for the backs of the cards, one of roses and lilies, as printed in 1909. Below, from the 1993 edition, are some of the cards which especially intrigued me when I first studied the pack – images, colours and landscapes which drew me into the story.
The Pixie of Bude
Robert and I live in Devon, and one of our favourite destinations is Bude, over the border in neighbouring Cornwall, on the north coast. During a recent stay, when the rain was pouring down, we decided to forsake the beach and head to the Castle Museum. I have to admit that our visit was propelled less by culture, and more by the thought of drinking hot coffee there in the warm café with a wonderful view of the waves. But walking through the exhibition area, where we’ve been on previous visits, I was astonished to see a panel now in place commemorating Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot artist and former resident of Bude. Few people now realise that she spent the last decade of her life there, and so local historians and Tarot fans have reclaimed her name for the town. I decided that the time had come for me too to explore Pamela’s life further, and learn about her connection with Bude.
A quiet arrival
When Pamela arrived in Bude in the early 1940s, with her companion Norah Lake, she was an elderly lady in poor health, who chose to live rather quietly. But although she kept a low profile in the town, she was still advertising her artwork; she had been a prolific artist with a varied output, as I’ll describe below. And now, being somewhat impoverished, she needed to make her art pay its way; as well as offering to paint commissions, she sometimes tried to persuade her errand boy to take a piece of art for his wages, rather than ready cash! (He was not enthusiastic.) Pamela had already been in Cornwall for over twenty years before she came to Bude, living on the remote Lizard Peninsula in a house known as Parc Garland since 1919. She now considered herself something of a native. But in her youth, her life had been far from reclusive or remote – she once mixed with a glittering crowd from the worlds of theatre and the arts. She was also a sophisticated international traveller, having lived in America and Jamaica.
In Bude, however, her remarkable life story was little known locally, and when she died in 1951, her effects were auctioned off to pay her debts. She now lies in an unmarked plot in the parish churchyard, thought to be a pauper’s grave. Much about her life in Cornwall and other biographical details has recently been published by local historian Dawn Robinson (see details below). As a minor point of interest, she was not the only person with esoteric interests to die in Bude, since the leading astrologer Alan Leo had also passed away there in 1917, although he was just there on holiday at the time.
Why did she choose to move to Bude? No one knows the exact answer – possibly to ease her financial circumstances after her previous home swallowed up all her resources. Or perhaps she wanted to be close to a Catholic church, a rare commodity in the non-conformist county of Cornwall but one which Bude could provide; she had run her own small Catholic chapel at Parc Garland. But I wonder if instead she was drawn primarily by the landscape of legend in which Bude lies? She was deeply influenced by an earlier visit to Tintagel, a short distance away, with its Arthurian associations.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in Pimlico, London, to American parents, and she later moved back to New York with them. As a young woman, she also spent time with her father in Jamaica, where he had business interests, and took up story-telling after she eagerly absorbed many of the traditional tales there. There is some speculation that she may have had West Indian heritage, as she was quite dark in colour, and her appearance, it was often remarked, hinted at something ‘exotic’ in her ancestry. She studied at art college in Brooklyn, and began a prolific, industrious career as an artist, which shifted to England from 1900 onwards. Her work includes illustrations for children’s stories and magazine features, plus the production of Christmas cards and calendars, and original studies of actors and Shakespeare plays. Although these are not ‘visionary’ in the same way that her Tarot and music-related paintings are, they show that she could absorb herself into what might be called a ‘legendary’ style, drawing on myths and folk stories, and depicting enchanted worlds. Later, as we shall see, her mystical and magical images began to emerge more strongly into life.
She was remarkably versatile, and also worked as a bit part actress for the touring company run by the legendary stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; they became her friends and benefactors, and she lived with them for a while in Kent. Edy Craig, Ellen’s illegitimate daughter and future suffragette, became one of Pamela’s closest friends. Her alliance with the family also made it easy for her to mix in various bohemian, artistic and literary circles, where she became well-known as an eccentric but talented artist. She had a stellar array of friends and collaborators: Debussy, the Yeats brothers – artist Jack and poet William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), and children’s writer Arthur Ransome, who claimed that he learned his own rhythms of story-telling from listening to Pamela’s performances. Indeed, she held her own soirees and was famous for sitting cross-legged in gypsy robes while weaving a spell with her tales, reciting poems or singing at the piano. She served her guests with ‘opal hush’, her favourite cocktail of claret and lemonade (a drink also celebrated in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses). Her nickname swiftly became established as Pixie.
Pixie Pamela was celebrated for her unusual, ageless look and distinctive clothing: ‘a little round woman’ dressed in an orange coat adorned with black tassels, hanging loosely over a green skirt, according to Arthur Ransome on his first encounter with her. Her emotional life is still something of a mystery. No evidence of any amorous relationships has ever come to light, with men or women, although there is speculation that she may have been close to Edy Craig. And there is nothing indicative in her later companionship with spiritualist Norah Lake, as in those days it was normal practice for a couple of single women to team up and run a household together.
Some of Pamela’s art work, including the West Indian ‘Annancy’ stories, and prints from her own ‘Green Sheaf’ press. For a short while, she collaborated with Jack Yeats in producing a hand-coloured magazine, which proved too costly and time-consuming as a commercial venture.
Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn
In 1901, she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, and remained a member for some seven or eight years. This was a magical order, studying symbolism and ritual in a structured fashion, with grades and initiation practices; men and women were admitted on equal status. W. B. Yeats was a member, as was Arthur E. Waite, though during Pamela’s time there a schism there drove each of these men into different branches of the order. Pamela remained in Waite’s camp. Sources of the Golden Dawn teaching included Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism and Hermetic traditions such as alchemy. The set-up and history of the Golden Dawn is complex, and many studies have been written about it, so I will not attempt to go into detail here.
Pamela did not strive to attain the highest ‘grades’ of the Order, the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Perhaps she preferred to stay in the lower ranks to preserve her artistic integrity, instinctively protecting her own creative channels from too much outside dictation of form. But Pamela’s innate magical way of seeing the world – to which the legends and folk tales which she loved were a stepping stone – was probably first given a useful framework there. And even at the lower levels, she would have learnt much about esoteric philosophy, and gained knowledge of a structured, hierarchical magical tradition. This was in contrast to the ‘spiritualist’ approach of the day, inviting trance and spontaneous mystical or psychic experiences to arise. When Waite commissioned her to paint his Tarot cards, he was careful to keep her on a well-defined track, and to avoid complete free flow, as we’ll see.
It’s notable that that she entered the ranks of the Golden Dawn shortly after she first discovered that listening to music could trigger vivid visionary scenes for her. Her sense of a psychic dimension was growing, and the organised frame of reference of Golden Dawn teaching would be a means to understand what was happening. Without that, perhaps her work would not have progressed beyond the personal art of her subjective imagination, into her now famous depictions of the Tarot cards, which speak of a more universal wisdom.
Pamela herself was musical, as mentioned, and her mother was a fine singer. She had illustrious musical friends, such as the composer Debussy and the early music revivalist, Arthur Dolmetsch, and performing and listening to music were key elements of her life. However, something completely new happened on Christmas Day in 1900, which she celebrated at actress Ellen Terry’s house. The family were listening to Ellen’s son Gordon Craig playing a piece by Bach. One moment, it was simply a pleasant musical experience, and then suddenly, as she described it: ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square, and through it I saw a bank and broken ground, the smooth trunks of trees with dark leaves; across from left to right came dancing and frolicking little elfin people with the wind blowing through their hair and billowing their dresses. The picture was very vivid and clear, and a beautiful colour, with bluish mist behind the tree trunks. I drew an outline in pencil of what I saw on the edge of a newspaper, and as I finished – in perhaps a minute – the shutter clicked back again.’ (p 60: as recollected by Pamela in an article – ‘Music Made Visible’, by Mrs Forbes-Sempill, Illustrated London News, 1927; facsimile here.)
It seemed to be a one-off experience, but then a couple of years later, the visions returned when she listened to music. Each time one occurred, she drew it frantically, even when she was in the audience at public concerts. She discovered that if she didn’t do this straight away, she would lose the scene which appeared before her inner eyes. ‘If she ever alters her drawing in the least detail from what she sees, the picture breaks up and disappears. She feels quite detached from these drawings, and is immensely interested in them, viewing them as an outsider who has never seen them before,’ the magazine article continues. In one week in 1908, she completed 94 drawings, some of which she would later elaborate and colour.
Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?
Her visions have been described as a form of synesthesia, which is ‘a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses’. (Healthline.com) . But this generally implies a set of associations, not a full-blown image. For instance, I experience it in a mild way, so that the word Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, the note G on the piano is green, D is brown, etc. But even more elaborate cases than mine do not, as far as I am aware, produce a complete, live scene such as Pamela experienced. Her visions seem more akin to the practice of using ‘active imagination’, or ‘pathworking’ in Kabbalah. The scenes have a completeness and a life of their own.
I asked artist and art teacher John Pearce, who is himself very familiar with the Tarot, if he would agree with this. He answered:
‘Synesthesia is missing the point, but the idea isn’t wholly irrelevant. In any case, one should distinguish between fleeting experiences and what Oliver Sacks defines as “true synesthesia” which is “a congenital and often familial condition where there are fixed sensory equivalences which last a lifetime”.
‘Pamela Coleman Smith might have had something comparable to synesthesia. The difference was that her unusual sensibility was expressed as a creative response to a stimulus rather than a predetermined one. The visionary event in the Bach concert may be related to synesthesia, but is much more individual, even though there is an impersonal quality as if she saw a parallel world.’
Pamela Colman Smith’s grandparents were Swedenborgians, a mystical Christian movement in which communication with angels and visions are an accepted part of human experience. William Blake, who also had some connection with this movement, saw clear visions of angels, and some of Pamela’s paintings do have a Blake-like style. So perhaps this expression of wafting figures and otherworldly scenes was already part of her imaginative and ancestral vocabulary, which was later shaped further by the training in symbolism which the Golden Dawn used. Visions may come from another dimension of experience, but they are shaped and interpreted by our own imagination, which in turn is fed by the culture we have absorbed. At any rate, I think it is missing the point to call her experiences synesthesia, and to attribute them solely as neurological events.
Some of Pamela Colman Smith’s ethereal figures above, and one of William Blake’s paintings below, titled ‘The Sea of Time and Space’
When Arthur Waite conceived the notion of creating a new Tarot deck, which would embody some of the wisdom of the Golden Dawn, his thoughts immediately turned to Pamela, and he wrote to an unknown contact: ‘I…have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set…(she) has some knowledge of the Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge which are not in the open day…The result…is a marriage of art and symbolism.’ Waite was an established scholar and esotericist, who was a leading figure in his branch of the Golden Dawn. He was 52 years old when the Tarot cards were published, whereas Pamela at 31 was very much his junior, and less experienced in esoteric lore. It was a natural consequence that Waite would take the lead.
So Pamela worked chiefly under Waite’s guidance, including in her designs what he considered to be the essential symbolism, but with scope to involve her own vision, and to draw on various historic and artistic influences to achieve the best visual and technical results. The result is a remarkable set of cards, each with an immediacy and presence, but which form part of a distinctive whole. Some of the styles she drew on were those of Japanese prints, medieval illuminations, Renaissance imagery and Arts and Crafts decoration. Her considerable experience of painting stage characters and theatrical scenes came in very useful, as they depend on delineating each figure, gesture and facial expression sharply.
The scenes above painted by Pamela, are both studies of the actor Sir Henry Irving, and in the scene on the left, he is playing Shylock to Ellen Terry’s Portia. Pamela acted with their troupe, and lived more or less as one of the family.
The scenes in her Tarot cards are certainly well-defined, yet there is something of a mysterious and magical quality about them. To throw in a somewhat odd analogy, I remember how I would gaze at the pictures in Rupert Bear strip stories when I was a child, and feel that I could be transported into that beautiful pinkish mauve sky, or climb those distant hills, or meet these strange characters on the path. While writing this post, I suddenly realised that it was much the same thing as my first experience of seeing Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards! There is a sense of another world within each image, not fantasy as such, but a kind of mythic dimension which we can grasp. Pamela, as I see it, had the gift to open that ‘shutter’.
The mysteries of Rupert Bear – as I experienced them as a child!
And Waite’s intention was to bring specific meanings into each of her paintings, embodying particular connections to what he called ‘the Secret Tradition.’ With his knowledge, and her imagination, the collaboration was a remarkable and successful project, as we can judge by the longevity of the card deck. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, 1938, there is a passage which gives a fascinating glimpse of the process:
Now, in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist, named Pamela Colman Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and loved the Ceremonies…. without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their subsurface consequence. It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries, in the Paths of which I was travelling. I am not of course intimating that the Golden Dawn had at that time any deep understanding by inheritance of Tarot Cards; but, if I may so say, it was getting to know under my auspices that their Symbols…were gates which opened on realms of vision beyond occult dreams. I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card, over that which is called the Fool an over the Hanged Man.
(Quoted in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, p. 75)
NB – the syntax of this passage is – well – taxing! I’ve checked it for correctness, and suggest that the meaning is clear enough if read at a brisk pace; otherwise strange clauses and word order may trip us up. I’ve highlighted the sentence where Waite makes it clear that Pamela was deliberately kept on a track which avoided wandering off on associative or psychic impressions, and kept to the principles which he wished to convey.
His method could be seen as over-dominating, but in fact it was most probably helpful to Pamela to have Waite’s guidance in keeping tabs on the essential symbolism and significance of the cards. If she was still immersed in Golden Dawn rituals, it would have been easy for her to ‘pick up’ on other people’s images, which can often affect us when we’re working in psychic closeness with others. Even if the group is working with a chosen symbol, this can take many different shapes and be coloured by our own imaginative versions of it. Having a guide or instructor detached from this can be crucial; those who have worked with ‘guided visualisations’ in a group will know the truth of this. So although Pamela needed to keep her visionary faculties open, she also benefited from having a collaborator who could help her to see beyond ephemeral imagery.
Apparently Pamela wasn’t paid very much for her work, and neither she nor Waite regarded the creation of the pack as a major accomplishment. But, as already stated, it is the most popular deck of Tarot cards ever created, and has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s where her real claim to fame lies, a claim which is becoming much more widely recognised today.
In some ways, I want to put Pamela’s personal history to the back of my mind now when I pick up the pack. Perhaps just for a few minutes at a time, so that I can walk into the world created by each those cards without too much conscious knowledge of their construction. But I also value this background knowledge, and both aspects are important in our connection with the cards. They can be studied, as they are full of symbols and telling detail, with the weight of a hermetic ‘secret tradition’ behind them, yet they are also admirably suited to just gazing on each image, and allowing an interpretation to come to mind.
In 1908, just before she painted the Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith wrote an article for the Arts & Crafts journal The Craftsman (p380), and what she says paves the way for how we can view her cards:
‘Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything!…Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.’
Since I posted this blog, writer and W.B. Yeats scholar Grevel Lindop has sent me a comment about Pamela Colman Smith’s musical visions, and the suggestion that they might have been triggered by a particular type of Golden Dawn practice:
I had a thought about her visions. Her statement that they began when ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square’ strongly suggests that the visions involved (intentionally or otherwise) the Golden Dawn technique of ‘Tattwa vision’. Here’s my summary of the method, from my Yeats draft:
‘The method was simple: we can take the yellow earth tattwa as an example. You gazed at the [square shape on the] card for about twenty seconds, then moved your gaze to ‘any white surface, such as the ceiling, or a sheet of paper’. You would see ‘a complementary colour’, probably ‘lavender-blue, or pale translucent mauve’. Closing your eyes, you should try to see this lavender square getting bigger, making it large enough to pass through, like a door. Going through it, you would visualise whatever landscape lay beyond – including any inhabitants you might see, who could be deceptive.’
Despite the reference to making it like a door and going through, actually Golden Dawn members often described the rectangle as a ‘window’, and Yeats would experiment on friends by asking them to visualise a small yellow or golden window, and then tell him what they could see through it. PCS’s reference to a square hole in the air that opened like a shutter suggests that her visions were either initially triggered, or at least developed, by the GD tattwa method. I don’t think synaesthesia had much to do with it.
The dates as we have them slightly differ – first ‘vision’ in 1900, joined Golden Dawn 1901. However, she could have begun some informal training or perhaps Mr Yeats invited her to experiment with this method.
Full biographical details of her life and work are now available in two excellent studies:
Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Stuart Kaplan et al, (U.S.Games Systems Inc, 2018) A beautifully illustrated compilation of Pamela’s art work, plus excellent essays on her life and times, focusing in depth on the Tarot she created.
Pamela Colman Smith: The Pious Pixie, Dawn G. Robinson, Fonthill Media, 2020.) A historian and writer from Bude takes on the task of composing a full biography for Pamela , with special reference to her life in Cornwall
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A. E. Waite is the classic introduction to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, written by the man who initiated the project.
I am thankful to the Castle Heritage Centre at Bude for alerting me to the fact that Pamela lived in the town. I also acknowledge drawing on some of the illustrations in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story to illustrate this account, and hope that it will lead to increased sales of this excellent book.
Thanks to John Pearce and Rod Thorn for scrutinising my text here, and making comments. There are also some excellent Tarot and Golden Dawn scholars out there who have helped me build up knowledge of the background over the years, including R. A. Gilbert, Stuart Kaplan and Mary Greer.