Pamela Colman Smith was the artist for the Rider-Waite (now also named Waite-Smith) Tarot Deck. Her artwork is seen in nearly all references to tarot in Hollywood films, modern literature, and cultural discussions. It can almost be guaranteed that every one of you reading this article has seen this artwork, either up close or in pop culture. Yet, her name has barely been heard in spiritual circles, let alone in wider social discourse.
Smith was a mixed-race British woman who helped revolutionise tarot by providing ground-breaking imagery for tarot decks when tarot was either very simplistic or unintelligible. However, her name isn’t even mentioned on the original tarot deck box. Being a woman and mixed-race woman in the early 20th century made her susceptible to being the forgotten name of tarot.
Although Smith was responsible for drawing the illustrations and worked on the deck just as much as its namesake and creator, Waite, the only recognition that she was afforded was a flat fee discussed before the creation of the deck – and, in turn, its success.
However, she cleverly and sneakily forced everyone to acknowledge her mark by scattering her signature throughout the deck. It can be found on every card and has been a point of conversation as people around the world question and admire that little squiggle that doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in Pimlico, central London, where she spent the first ten years of her life. However, when she moved to Jamaica, aged 10, she found her spirituality and took note of the Jamaican folklore that captured her imagination and spirit. This is evident in her self-illustrated and written books Annancy Stories (1899) and Chim-Chim, Folk Stories from Jamaica (1905), written just before she illustrated the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.
She spent her adolescence in America, where she studied at the Pratt Institute for a short time, prematurely finishing her course before graduating after her mother died. When her father passed away in 1899, when Smith was just 21 years old, she went back to England to continue as an illustrator after completing some works in Brooklyn.
Here, she met Arthur Edward Waite and coined her nickname Pixie. Smith met Waite at Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the practice of the occult, metaphysics and the paranormal. They teamed up to create a reinvention of the 15th century Sola Busca tarot, which was the only tarot deck that used images at the time.
The work is heavily influenced by the Sola Busca tarot, which is evident in the placement of characters and the use of symbolism throughout the deck. However, the original Sola Busca deck depicts unrealistic and outlandish characters compared to the Rider-Waite deck, which lends itself to more humanistic characterisations.
The lasting importance of this deck has been the inspiration for many tarot decks over the past 100 years since its creation. It helped pave the way for nearly all of the future decks we see today. Now, with the recent resurgence of tarot and spiritualism, tarot decks have taken on new styles and designs whilst still paying homage and drawing inspiration from the familiar Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.
Despite unfavourable beginnings, you might have noticed that Smith, after nearly a decade, was finally given the recognition she deserved. Her name can now be found on all published copies of the recognisable tarot deck and, when cited, is now referenced as the Waite-Smith Tarot Deck.
It could be argued that it’s too late. That it’s yet another example of the multitude of setbacks women of colour have faced with the whitewashing of history. However, it can also mark a changing tide in the accreditation of work produced by people of colour. It helps change how we look at and define history, to become more factual, inclusive, and authentic. To finally include Black British women in our history books is not something we should only just be celebrating in the 21st century, but to have our truth honoured is a welcome victory.