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Pamela Colman Smith
on January 20, 2002
A. E. Waite always gets top billing for this. Too little attention, I think, is paid to the achievement of Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who drew the designs that are now 'standard' and the place of beginning for Tarot card readers.
Smith was born in England to American parents, and grew up in Jamaica. She toured with the theatre company of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in the late 1890's, where she joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and met Waite. She also did a great deal of illustration work for William Butler Yeats and his brother Jack, but apart from this deck, her art found little commercial success.
Which is a shame, because its blend of Art Deco and Symbolism made her a fine fantasy illustrator, as well as the perfect artist for this project. She died in 1951, and the chief fame and distribution of the Waite deck unfortunately came after this. No one knows where she is buried. Her deck lives on, not only in the minds of Tarot believers, but in those who like lovely things.
This is, of course, one of the first mass produced Tarot decks to illustrate every card. Most of its successors take their lead from her images.
The flaws in the deck seem to be Waite's. If I could find fault in this project, it is in the fact that the images tend to force interpretations onto the cards that might be read differently. The ten of swords, for instance, could mean the achievement of an intellectual goal, as well as what is suggested by the drastic image seen here. There is still room for a traditional deck with the simple pictures of the suit cards as well as the trumps.