This is a tribute to an artist, a daughter of Pimlico, who though she died in relative poverty and obscurity in Cornwall in 1951, she yet came to touch untold lives with her work. If you have any connection to divination or the occult you will have seen her art. Her paintings and illustrations went out with the tide of the early twentieth century, only to return with the occult revival of the 1970s, washed into homes and shops by the thousand; not to be valued by critics and cultural elites, but to be handled, used, loved and made a part of people’s lives. Her name was Pamela Colman Smith.
Colman Smith was born in 1878 (an Aquarian incidentally) to American and Jamaican parents. Her family lived in Manchester till she was about 10 years old, but moved to Jamaica in 1889. By 1893 Pamela had moved to Brooklyn, where she started her artistic education at the age of 15.
A wonderful Pamela Colman Smith website relates the following:
“In 1893 PCS enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a co-educational, progressive school. The school emphasized ‘manual training’ which educated the whole person – creatively, intellectually, and morally. Artists were not an elite but vibrant, creative, contributing members of society. Also here, PCS came under the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was influenced by Japanese art and taught that pictures could be composed the same way music was composed by using color, tone, shape, and line – much more abstract than imitative drawing. Art also had a spiritual content that reflected the Master Artist and the harmony woven into the substance of the world. Art was social and spiritual. Art could change the world. Emotion and ideas could be expressed indirectly but meaningfully in visual art by drawing or painting synaesthetically using a harmony of colored spaces.”
This is fantastic, and somehow so fitting for this artist, who is so difficult to pigeon hole, so unfairly overlooked, and yet so popularly loved. The author goes on:
“PCS is often classified as a Symbolist. Symbolist art was a significant trend in the fin de siècle (end of the 1800s)”
She continues that Symbolism is difficult to categorize, but has a number of common features eg:
– a reaction to the determinism, naturalism and materialism of its age
– focus on the internal and symbolic, rather than the external and empirical
– “Personal and enigmatic visions and mystical themes expressed through private symbol rather than public, consensual allegory or metaphor”
– “ideographic content” reflecting the “primacy of spirit, soul, or imagination”
The author also notes that Symbolism’s reaction against the materialism of the fin de siècle is often confused with Romanticism, but the former was in fact an earlier reaction against the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment.
Pamela Colman Smith unfortunately had a lot of time off from the Pratt Institute due to illness, and did not graduate, but she did go on to exhibit, and work as an illustrator, as well authoring a number of books. At the Lyceum Theatre in London she worked with a company on costume and stage design. Here she met Bram Stoker (author of “Dracula”), for whom she did the illustrations for “Lair of the White Worm”.
In 1901 Coleman Smith joined The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and it was here that she met WB Yeats and AE Waite. In 1903 she started a magazine called “The Green Sheaf”, which published pieces by Yeats, Christopher St John, AE (George William Russell) and others. She had a number of exhibitions in the early years of the century, including in New York, while her association with AE Waite continued. By 1909 she announced the completion of 80 drawings for a tarot deck. In America however, she was starting to be seen as belonging to a time that had gone, while paintings by artists such as Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso and Rodin were gaining greater attention.
Meanwhile Rider and Son published the tarot deck which Coleman Smith had worked on with AE Waite. At this time Coleman Smith also joined the movement for women’s suffrage in London, to which she contributed posters and art work. Between 1911 and 1914 her work appears in a number of books. In 1918 she got an inheritance from an uncle and moved to Cornwall, where she set up a retreat for priests (having converted to Catholicism a number of years earlier).
From this point till her death in 1951 we hear little of Pamela Colman Smith or her art. We just don’t know what she was doing aside from running a retreat with little financial success. When she died all her possessions were sold to pay off her debts. *
I think there is something heroic about her. She was a real individual who followed her own course in her own way, and it’s really not a great surprise that doing that doesn’t necessarily lead to great acknowledgement from the game the world is playing. She was a talented artist that takes her place within a milieu of progressive and mystical ideals and activities, but she was not going to satisfy the art establishment’s growing appetite for “the shock of the new”. She was not to become fashionable. But then she had links to the arts and crafts movement, as well as to turn of the century esotericism. It’s hardly surprising that she would not be the ancestor of moneyed, hipster art.
We might not even be talking about her, if it were not for those tarot cards. But what an appropriate victory they are in a sense. “Artists were not an elite but vibrant, creative, contributing members of society” was the quote from the Pratt Institute. How many artists can say that prints of 78 of their works are owned by thousands, used intimately, introducing ordinary people to divination and esoteric symbolism, handled, meditated on, studied, and given new meaning over and over again? In the field of tarot her designs revolutionized tarot decks and tarot reading by having a fully illustrated minor arcana for the first time, while the publishing of the deck made tarot and tarot reading accessible for many; something that became really obvious after about 1971. Virtually all modern tarot decks with illustrated minor arcana are based upon her deck. She democratized a little piece of magic, and her art will always be associated with that quiet revolution. She’s the one Symbolist artists that really did get right into ordinary people’s lives, and bring a sense of mysteries and the esoteric with her.
What an individual. Bless you, Pamela Colman Smith. May you be remembered with gratitude and fondness, and appreciation for what you achieved.
Pamela Colman Smith circa 1912 – by Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – digitally tinted
* most of the biographical details in this post are courtesy of the above mentioned website at http://home.comcast.net/~pamela-c-smith/bio.html.