Many people are familiar with Pamela Coleman Smith who designed the Rider Waite Tarot deck, under the guide of Dr A E Waite, but what of Lady Frieda Harris, who designed and worked with Aleister Crowley? 

She came from a fairly well to do family; her father was a surgeon and she married Percy Harris in 1901. He was a member of the Liberal Party and served as a politician for several years and became Sir Percy Harris in 1932 which entitled her to be called Lady. 

She was a respected artist and met with Crowley in 1937 when he was looking for an artist to design his Tarot deck. Although she was then aged 60, she became a Member of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, one of the many around at the time. 

Crowley had originally wanted his deck to follow the more traditional Tarot de Marseilles cards, but Lady Frieda persuaded him to commit his occult, magical, spiritual and scientific views to the project. She sent Crowley a regular update throughout the project. She also used her society contacts to find financial backers for the exhibition of the paintings, the catalogues, and for the publication of the Tarot deck.

The pressure may have taken its toll on Harris and Crowley was sufficiently concerned to call in the lawyers to protect his 66% investment in the project. Crowley does however, give Lady Frieda praise in the introduction to the Book of Thoth

“She devoted her genius to the Work. With incredible rapidity she picked up the rhythm, and with inexhaustible patience submitted to the correction of the fanatical slave-driver that she had invoked, often painting the same card as many as eight times until it measured up to his Vanadium Steel yardstick!” 

Throughout the project she insisted on her own anonymity but she revelled in working for such a notorious man. The Book of Thoth was published in 1944 in a 200 copy limited edition, but neither Crowley or Harris lived to see the deck itself printed in 1969. 

The surviving letters between Frieda Harris and Crowley show the level of their devotion to each other. On 29 May 1942 Crowley wrote to Pearson, the photoengraver of the Thoth deck: “I should like to emphasise that I am absolutely devoted to Lady Harris, and have the evidence of countless acts of kindness on her part, indicating that her feelings toward me are similar“.

There is a break in the Harris – Crowley letters after the exhibition in July 1942 but she was in close contact with him, particularly towards the end of his life, and visited him frequently. A pencil sketch she made of Crowley on his deathbed survives.  

After Crowley’s death she wrote to Frederic Mellinger, an O.T.O. member in Germany, on 7 December 1947: “He was well taken care of. I made him have a nurse about 3 months ago as he was dirty & neglected & he had Watson who was most devoted & the Symonds were as nice as they knew how to be. At the last Mrs. McAlpine & the boy were there. I saw him the day he died, but he did not recognize me. I think Mrs. McAlpine was with him but she says there was no struggle, just stopped breathing. I shall miss him terribly. An irreplaceable loss. Love is the law, love under will. Yours Sincerely, Frieda Harris”.

Lady Frieda had plans to do a lecture tour in the United States and exhibit the original paintings of the Thoth tarot deck in 1948 but this never materialised. 

After her husband’s death in 1952, she moved to India where she died in Srinagar on 11 May 1962. She bequeathed the original paintings of her Tarot cards to fellow Thelemite Gerald Yorke, who in turned placed them with the Warburg Institute along with much other Crowley material that he had collected over the years. However, Yorke retained several alternative versions of the cards and some preliminary studies which he later sold through bookdealer Harold Mortlake. The Thoth deck is now published and widely available through US Games. 

I have two copies of the Thoth deck, one small and one larger and personally I prefer the quality of the images on the small deck. Many newcomers to the Tarot seem to either love or hate The Thoth deck; the images are very powerful and Crowley’s reputation of being the ‘Most evil man in Britain’ in the late Victorian years did nothing to promote the deck either. 

I do use this deck from time to time, but it is not for everyone, that’s for sure!

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