Tarot Reader Rebecca, 36, from England, writes an open letter to her heroine, RWS artist Pamela Colman Smith.
You know that project that you inked for Arthur, Tarot Cards, back in 1909? Well, you won’t believe this, but they’re a worldwide phenomenon now!!! No, honestly, I’m not making it up! You’re worshipped by thousands of fans around the world, I swear to God! Books have been written about your life, mate! Somehow, still no one’s quite sure what your exact race or sexual identity are, but I kinda love it that you’ve left us with some mystery there; you’re as enigmatic in death as you were in life – perfectly fitting, wouldn’t you say?
Okay, so I’ll tell you what’s out there on the Internet about you (don’t worry about what the Internet is – that’s a whole other letter)…
You were born in London in the February of 1878 as Corinne Pamela Colman Smith – although always informally referred to as ‘Pamela’ by your parents – and you travelled extensively from a young age, living in Manchester, Kingston, London and New York, the latter of which being where you began studying art at the Pratt Institute at the age of 15.
I’m so sorry to hear that you lost your mum and dad within a three-year period not long after. They come across as really loving, supportive parents and it must have been beyond devastating for you.
Without graduating, you moved back to London alone at the age of 21, in 1899. There, you quickly integrated yourself within the artistic community, working as a book illustrator and touring with Bram Stoker as a set designer for the Lyceum Theatre Group (FYI: Bram Stoker is still massive to this day too. You must tell him to pop in on Whitby, Yorkshire, and he’ll see the proof for himself). I’ve heard it was during your theatre days when Ellen Terry gave you your nickname, ‘Pixie’, which loads of your fans refer to you as still! I know, this is a lot to take in.
To an outsider such as myself, I can’t help but think you must have been absolutely high on life at this point, living in theatres, becoming an enthralled knowledge-seeker of the Occult arts, writing and illustrating your own Jamaican folklore books – your mum would have been so proud – as well as illustrating the books of your friends Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, amongst various other professional projects including working with the Yeats brothers. I mean, that’s all pretty outstanding stuff, and then there was more…. by your late-20s, you had established yourself as a well-respected and well-known part of the Bohemian scene, hosting regular events at your own studio in London. Remember that magazine you started up, and the three painting exhibitions in New York? God, you must have been buzzing (as we say in Yorkshire). You even aided both the Suffragette movement and WWI efforts through your poster art.
At the age of 31, you drew and inked the 78 RWS Tarot cards that I’ll talk to you a bit more about in a sec’, but I just want to acknowledge that despite leading such a free-spirited and exciting life, you never made the income you deserved. It’s probably a bit grating to hear you’d have been a multi-millionaire now, as it seems you could have really done with the cash at the time.
You converted to Catholicism in 1911 and WWI signalled the death knoll of the arts & crafts movement that you so loved soon after. When you inherited the money from your uncle, you bought a property in Bude, Cornwall, and rented out another to holidaying Catholic priests, as a means of income. You lived there with Nora Lake for years, and in 1951, when you passed away at the age of 73, you left your estate to her (although much of it had to be auctioned to cover debts, sadly).
Phew! So, that was a lot to write, and that’s just skimming the surface! Why are you laughing? Oh, go on then, how much of it is wrong? The bones are there though, right?!
Anyway, here’s the goss’… you should probably sit down for this… In 1971, 20-years after your death, Stuart R Kaplan brought those forgotten Tarot Cards back to life! He copyrighted them to US Games Systems Inc. and re-named them ‘Rider Tarot’, thus birthing the iconic ‘Rider-Waite’ version used the world over today. Okay, don’t panic – although the official title is named after William Rider, the deck’s first publisher, and its brainchild, your friend Arthur Edward Waite, who commissioned you to draw the deck’s 78 illustrations all those years ago, most – and many new offshoot decks – call it ‘Rider-Waite-Smith’ (RWS) anyway. Trust me, Pixie, your contribution is beyond recognised and validated now, more than what your wildest dreams could ever imagine (WOW, it felt good to tell you that!). There is some discussion speculating that you were left out of the original accolade simply because you were female, and trust me, that hasn’t gone down well in this day and age, you’ll be pleased to hear!
Oh Pixie, you’d love it here now! You’d be so energised by the freedom we have to do all the things you did, without it going against expected social norms: without the adversity. You are indeed ‘the Original Bohemian’; you are a source of fascination and inspiration to many and your art, spirit and strength live on. You are not only my heroine, but the heroine of many. Thank you for being you, and for all you did… and continue to do.
A loyal fan,
PS: Sorry if you think me displaying photos of you in my wallet and in my garden room is a little up there on the fanboi scale… it’s just, whenever I look at them, they give me strength to just be me, because if you could do it in the Victorian and Edwardian years, then I sure as heck can do it now.
Rebecca is a Court Member of ’The Tarot Server’ on Discord, under the handle @CraggyIslandTea. ‘Our server is a friendly, active and knowledgeable safe space to enjoy Tarot discussion, games, raffles, reading swaps and much more. A warm welcome awaits you!’