· By Payge Bellini
Pamela Colman Smith: The High Priestess of Tarot
Who was the mysterious woman behind the world’s most popular Rider-Waite Tarot deck? Pamela Colman Smith, known as “Pixie” by her friends, was the artist who created the images we all know and love. Although her signature can be seen on these familiar cards, her name wasn’t credited at the time for the 78 card project and she received very little money for her artwork. Was this a classic example of women not being given credit for their hard work or just a project she was eager to take on regardless? We may never know, but what we do know is that she left her mark on the occult world and deserves the recognition.
Pamela was born in 1878 in England. She spent some time in her childhood in Jamaica before moving to New York to study art at Pratt Institute. When her mother passed away she dropped out but continued to create art. Many of her works were made for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1899 she moved back home to England. There she worked as a designer for a small theater in London where she met and traveled with interesting characters such as Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats.
These colorful friendships sparked her interest in the Occult and introduced her to Aleister Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. One of the few organizations at the time that allowed female initiates. There she met Arthur Edward Waite. He wanted to create a modern Tarot deck full of symbolism and mystery; Pixie was the perfect person for the job. The deck was published in 1909 with the publisher’s name and Waite.
In 1911 she converted to Catholicism, possibly because of her love of ritual. It is not known why she left the Occult. Little is known about her later years except that she was labeled a “spinster” and heavily in debt.
Her “spinster” status could be explained by the fact that she never was associated with having a romantic relationship with any man, and did not marry. Evidence suggests she was possibly a lesbian. She spent many time with bisexual suffragette handsome Edith “Edy” Craig, who was also the model for the Queen of Wands card. Even though the majority of her estate went to pay off her debts, the rest was left to her “flat mate”. Her flat mate being her likely lover, Nora Lake, who she lived with for 40 years till her death in 1951.
Now you can find new prints of these Tarot decks re-credited as the Smith-Waite deck, excluding the original publisher. One of the few photographs taken of her seems to tell the story of a spunky and unique woman who loved art and spirituality. A life of pain, love, exploration, laughter, struggle, and adventure. Though not credited or compensated properly in life; Pamela Colman Smith will forever live on through her art.