If you’ve ever had your tarot cards read, chances are good you pulled from the Rider-Waite deck, and that means you know the work of Pamela Colman Smith.
The tarot began as a set of playing cards in 15th-century Italy, but over the centuries it gained popularity as a 78-card fortune-telling device. The Rider-Waite version — the world’s best-selling tarot deck — was the brainchild of the British scholar A.E. Waite, who believed a properly designed tarot could lead to great spiritual awakenings. In 1909, he decided to commission an artist to paint an original deck according to his specifications, and he thought he knew the perfect candidate.
Nicknamed “Pixie,” Pamela Colman Smith was a 31-year-old artist, costume designer, suffragist, and occultist. She also had synesthesia, which means she saw visions whenever she listened to music. Hearing Chopin brought her to a moon-drenched garden by night, while Beethoven airdropped her into a landscape of ruined towers. Whenever she entered a room where Wagner had recently been played, she smelled a sickly stench clinging to the furniture.
Smith readily accepted Waite’s commission. Working out of her cramped studio in Chelsea, England, she completed the tarot deck in six months, drawing the 78 images in black ink before hand-painting them with opaque watercolor. In December 1909, the cards were published in a limited edition by William Rider & Son of London.
Smith received no formal credit for her work on the deck. Instead of a share of the copyright, which might have entitled her to royalties, she received a flat fee for her services — and a small one at that. As a woman of ambiguous race (her family had ties to Jamaica) and sexuality (she never married but lived with a female companion), Smith was not in a good position to assert her intellectual property rights.
With over 100 million copies of the Rider-Waite deck sold, it is no exaggeration to propose Pamela Colman Smith as the greatest victim of copyright injustice in history. In fact, her contribution to the deck might have been forgotten had she not embedded her initials — in the form of a sinuous monogram — in the lower right corner of each card.
In recent years, valiant efforts have been made to shed light on Smith’s artistry and unconventional life. “Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story,” a collection of essays edited by Stuart Kaplan, was published in 2018.
Yet this well-deserved attention comes decades too late. After painting the tarot, Smith struggled financially for the rest of her life. When she died of heart disease in 1951, she was buried in a pauper’s grave with only a wooden cross to mark the spot. It’s no use searching for the grave now — the cross rotted long ago.
Fortunately, her tarot deck endures. Today, around the world, people seek wisdom in its mysterious imagery. Her cards are like doorways measuring 2.75 by 4.75 inches, and those brave enough to step gingerly across their watercolor thresholds can enter into another realm. Whatever we call that place, Pamela Colman Smith could visit it any time she wanted. As she told an interviewer, “When I take a brush in hand and the music begins, it is like unlocking the door to a beautiful country.”
Will Dowd is a poet, essayist, and artist in the Boston area. He is the author of “Areas of Fog,” a collection of essays.