Pamela Colman Smith was the artist behind the most popular tarot deck in the western world, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.

As an artist, she changed the face of tarot, illustrating the world’s first “mass market” deck. And hers was one of the very first to have illustrations on every card in the deck.

She was born in 1878 in London and was the only child of an American father and a Jamaican mother. She grew up moving between Manchester, London, Brooklyn and Kingston.

Her family were arty theatrical types, and after her mother died, Pamela Colman Smith joined a theatre group, spending the next five years on stage, touring the US and abroad with them.

She also worked as a set designer, and it had a powerful influence on her work with its bizarre costumes and often very staged settings, many of her tarot cards have a very theatrical feel.

Smith studied to be an artist at the experimental, avant-garde Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but didn’t graduate. Nonetheless, she became an illustrator providing artwork for WB Yeats, Bram Stoker and more.

She wrote and published several books, including an illustrated collection of Jamaican folk tales, Anancy, which is still published today, and started her own magazine. She provided the artwork for posters for all kinds of events, and exhibited her work in a prestigious gallery in New York City.

Aside from the tarot deck, Smith’s most notable works were ‘synesthetic,’ meaning that senses are ‘blended.’ In her case, she was able to ‘see music.’ Sound and music created powerful visuals in her imagination and she was able to translate these into paintings.

Illustrating the Tarot

In 1901, Smith joined The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult society.

Here Smith met Arthur Edward Waite who later asked her to illustrate the tarot he had conceived.

Smith was the first person to illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their own, rather than simply showing two cups, or six swords. This was a groundbreaking idea which has changed the way many people see tarot today.

The deck was published by Rider and Son in 1909. This was the deck that began the popularization of tarot.

Her original drawings were pen and ink only.