September 2005

Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith © Aris Dervis

© Aris Dervis 2005

Monthly Spirit

Pamela Colman Smith

February 16 1878 - September 18, 1951

Pamela Colman Smith is the most collected artist of all times. More than one million copies of the Tarot deck she designed in 1909 are in existence, with each deck containing 78 cards. So there are 78,000,000 pieces of her art in the private collections of people around the world.

Pamela, also known as Pixie, was born in Middlesex, England to American parents. She received her art training at Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, graduating at the age of 19. Some of her happiest times were spent traveling to Jamaica and collecting folk stories.

Her efforts during the next ten years brought her little success and even less money. She wrote and illustrated books, presided over a shop selling art, and operated a small press of limited edition books and posters.

Her fortunes seemed to change at the age of 29 when Arthur Stieglitz selected her art for the first non-photographic work to be shown at his gallery on Madison Avenue. She received critical praise and sold 33 drawings. This was to be the high point of her career.

In 1909 she was commissioned to design a tarot deck by the metaphysician Arthur Edward Waite. She received a token payment and the deck was published in 1910 as the Rider-Waite deck, named for the publisher and patron.

The continued slow sales of her work and rejections from commercial publishers broke her spirit. She died at the age of 73, obscure and destitute. She was buried in a pauper's field with no memorial service or obituary mention. Her possessions were sold at auction.

Pamela Colman Smith was highly talented and ambitious. Her critics claimed that she had no business sense. Today, armed with an agent, an attorney, and an ironclad contract, one wonders what gain she would have realized from 95 years of royalties for her work on the Rider-Waite deck.

I created this shrine to honor the 54th anniversary of Pamela Colman Smith's death. I included the phrase "Welcome Home" to show the appreciation of the countless admirers of her art. If you have ever owned a Tarot deck or read an instruction manual, chances are good that it was Pamela Colman Smith's images that initiated you into the mysteries and taught you to divine. It is the most popular deck of the 20th century.