Book Reviews,  Reviews

Book Review: Pamela Colman Smith The Untold Story


Katalin is the chair of Tarot Association of the British Isles Kati has been born in Hungary, where she learned to read tarot at the age of 15. She has a Bsc in German Language and Culture and worked at an IT company as a manager until she met and moved in with her Indian husband in Germany. She now lives with him and with their two sons in England. This uniquely international setup  has helped her develop a very open minded and nonjudgmental approach to life, which her tarot readings and art also mirror. In her free time she loves doing arts, reading and writing – both books and tarot, and of course spending quality time with her family.

So you think you know who Pamela Colman Smith was. The artist behind the popular Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, right? But did you know she was a professional illustrator who worked on the strangest variety of commissions including Bram Stoker’s last novel? That she spent her childhood in Jamaica and illustrated and published books on local folk tales? That she has created a mini-theatre and performed these folk tales with it here in England? That she never married? These are just a few examples of what you are going to find out about the artist of possibly the most popular tarot deck ever created.

Pamela Colman Smith – The Untold Story goes beyond what most people know about this peculiar lady. The co-authors have done their research on an academic level and have presented us with everything that is there to know about Ms Colman Smith in a professional and visually extremely pleasing way. Out of the 440 pages a significant amount of space is taken up by pictures of Ms Colman Smith, her art, and places, people and artefacts that connect to her. It is absolutely fascinating to see how her art evolved, what influences her tarot illustrations have in them, and of course, how she lived her life.


The first hundred pages tell us about Ms Colman Smith’s private life; from early childhood to her death in Cornwall. Co-Author Elisabeth Foley O’Connor writes about her life in Jamaica; her studies at the famous Pratt Institiute; her emergance as a professional artist, then her life in England with details about her struggles and successes in publication. I particularly like the part about her Music Pictures – Ms Colman Smith’s practice of painting her visions she received while listening to classical music. We had a similar game with my mother where we enacted what the music “was about”; think of us picking icicles from thin air listening to Vivaldi’s Winter. It was amusing to see how easily her paintings can be associated with the particular piece of music. Another chapter of special interest is of course the one discussing her involvement with Waite and her being commissioned for painting The Deck. One has to wonder how the RWS would look like had Waite not “spoon-fed” (his words!) his artist… in any case it is thought provoking to read his thoughts about her.

The next part of the book by Co-author Stuart R. Kaplan bears the title “Folktales, Art and Poetry”. It is a gigantic gallery of Ms Colman Smith’s art from her early years to her last commissions. No discussion, no comments, no unnecessary text. Just art. The paper it has been printed on has a beige tone and matte finish as opposed to the first part that was on white, matte paper; these features make it easy to look at the showcased art without a strain on the eyes or having to turn the book in uncomfortable angles because of reflections of light. Whoever’s idea it was, it’s greatly appreciated! Of course, the major parts of the book having different colours also makes it easier to navigate between them.

My favourite piece of art – it isn’t easy to choose! – is titled ‘Debussy’s Submerged Cathedral’; a Music Picture showing, of course, a cathedral under water. It is so peaceful and yet sad to imagine little fishes swimming between statues of saints and seaweed growing in the sanctuary. Do look up the piece on Youtube, and just look at the painting and let it take you on a journey.

The next part by Melinda Boyd Parsons is of course the most important for tarot enthusiasts. It is titled “Influences and Expression in the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck”. Reading this chapter has explained so many things I didn’t really understand in this deck, and has pointed out some detailes I have never realised earlier! Take for example the infamous 10 of Swords. So far I have always heard that hope is there in the meaning of the card because of the rising sun in the background. Nope. Well ok maybe in part. But take a good look at the hand gesture of the person. Now look at any Christ Pantocrator image, you will see the more evident reason for hope! It may be just me but my mind was blown. Such little delicacies are packed into the chapter and I just can’t express how excited I am about them!

The last part is titled “Pamela’s Legacy” and is written by Mary K. Greer. It discusses how Ms Colman Smith’s work has influenced later tarot decks, how she has made tarot more accessible through illustrating the pips; how tarot became a tool for therapists and inspiration for film makers and poets alike. Most tarot readers know how important and influential her deck became since Stuart R. Kaplan has bought the rights to republish it. Yet not many know about her non-tarot legacy. She worked for many charitable organisations, protested with the suffragettes for equal rights and equal pay… her art has been exhibited time and again and her Jamaican folk tale collection is still available to buy – yes I checked it, it is on my wishlist now!

After the addendum showing documents relevant to Ms Colman Smith the book closes with TEN pages of Bibliography – yes you’ve read that right! – and an index of course.

If I would have to rate Pamela Colman Smith – The Untold Story, I would give it 6 out of 5 stars. The amount of research that has gone into it is just extraordinary. I bow before the patience and passion of the authors; you all have made an exceptional job! Pamela Colman Smith finally has received recognition appropriate for her achievements. Also, a special congratulation to Stuart R. Kaplan for his amazing collection of Pamela Colman Smith art and related items. I wish I could afford the limited edition leather bound version of this book! Well, maybe one day. Until then, this one will have a very special place in my library.

Pamela Coleman Smith – The Untold Story is written by  Stuart R. Kaplan, Mary K. Greer, Elisabeth Foley O’Connor, Melinda Boyd Parsons and is published by US Games Inc. It is available to buy now.

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