Looking At Pamela Colman Smith


Magenta offers TABI a wealth of knowledge and helpful hints in the form of tarot, numerology, tea leaves, spreads and places of interest. In this part of Numbers in the Tarot (click the link for part 1), Magenta takes us through exercises and explanations to help bring together the teachings of part 1. You can find out more about Magentas wares and skills on this link here

As avid Tarotists, I am sure everyone is familiar with the Rider Waite Tarot deck, but what do we know about the artist Pamela Colman Smith who painted the images on the cards?

I recently attended an interesting lecture at the College of Psychic Studies in London by Caroline Wise, a leading authority on Pamela.

The Emperor

First published in 1909, the deck was originally known as The Rider Waite deck; the name taken from Rider the publishers and Dr A E Waite who designed the deck and with not much acknowledgement to the work done by Pamela Colman Smith. In the early 1970’s, Stuart Kaplan (founder of US Games Systems Inc) printed The Rider Tarot deck and attributed the artwork to Pamela and this deck is often referred to as the RWS deck.

PCS was born on 16th February 1878 in Pimlico, London to American parents. Much of her childhood was spent in New York or in Kingston, Jamaica as her father had business connections in the West Indies. As a child she had a much loved Negro ‘mammy’ who enthralled Pamela with folk tales from the Caribbean and this influence can be seen in much of her artwork.

She studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York and in 1899, Pamela moved back to England and worked at the Lyceum theatre in London where she met Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame). She did the stage design, costume design and the illustrations for the programmes. She also made small toy theatres for her & her friends’ amusement.

Pamela also did a lot of painting which was inspired by listening to music; in particular Beethoven, Bach & Debussy. One amazing painting is ‘The Submerged Cathedral’ which I have seen, courtesy of Caroline Wise, who owns it. Note – you can see the image here where Katalin Patnaik reviewed Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story.

9 of Pentacles, The Lovers, 6 of Cups

Around 1901, she was introduced to the Order of the Golden Dawn by her friend, the poet W B Yeats, where she met Arthur Waite. He had been working on his own version of Tarot cards and commissioned Pamela to do the artwork. He gave her some specific imagery for the Majors, but she was given pretty much free rein in designing the Minors. Many if the images she used were inspired by the theatre clothes and sets from her theatrical background. Interestingly, some of the cards are known as ‘Stage’ cards as it looks as if the characters are on a stage. (Have a look at 2 of Swords, 4 Wands, 5 Cups & 6 Pentacles but here are 15 in all).

She painted all 78 cards in 6 months and the Rider Waite deck was published in 1909. On all the cards you will see her monogram – it looks like a squiggle in the corner of the cards, but it is a P, a C & S joined together.


In 1911, she converted to Catholicism and moved to Bude in Cornwall, England. She never married and it was assumed she was a gay woman. Sadly she died penniless in 1951.

She was given the nickname of ‘Pixie’ by the actress Ellen Terry, who was a famous leading lady in the early 20th century and this nickname encapsulated Pamela’s fairy-like quality. Pamela was an extraordinarily talented lady who, during her life-time, did not get the recognition she deserved.

I am proud to own one of the beautiful Commemorative editions of the Rider Waite deck published in 2009 for the centenary, which features more information about PCS.


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