Friday, 19 February 2016

Pamela Colman Smith - A Savant With a Child's Heart

Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the tarocci or “tarot” cards will be acquainted with the work of Miss Pamela Colman Smith, although they may be excused for not knowing her name. In the early years of the XXth century Miss Smith – an Anglo-American illustrator – was commissioned by the Masonic occultist Mr Arthur Waite to design a complete set of all seventy-eight cards of the traditional tarot deck. She completed this work in a remarkably short period of time between April and October 1909 and some time after this the cards were published by William Rider & Sons of London under the title ‘A Pictorial Key to the Tarot’. They have thereafter been known as the ‘Rider-Waite’ tarot and the name of the illustrator was not included in the title or on the box. This omission was then duplicated in 1971 when the American company US Games Inc. purchased the copyright to the cards and reissued them to the American market, making them the most well-known and popular tarot cards of the modern era. Today, the ‘Rider-Waite’ cards have become infused into popular culture to the extent that they may be regarded as prototypal; there are countless new sets on the market today, each with new illustrations on new themes, but the Rider-Waite cards are, as it were, a standard. It is a great pity then that the illustrator, the person most responsible for the indelible images of the cards, is not better known. It was an injustice she suffered in her own lifetime. Mr. Waite paid her only a token fee for her work and she received no royalties from sales. Born in 1878, she died penniless, debt-ridden and forgotten in 1951. 

By virtue of the ‘Rider-Waite’ tarot, however, Miss Smith – she was generally known as “Pixie” – must be credited as having had a profound impact upon the visual imagination of the modern West. Her tarot cards, rendered in her simple, linear style with Art Nouveau influence, are her masterpiece. The remarkable thing is that she was able to translate the instructions of the verbose and tedious Mr. Waite into compelling images that arrest the imagination and, most importantly, impose themselves upon the memory. No other design of the tarot comes near to Miss Smith’s in this respect. Others are more beautiful and yet others are more symbolically exact, perhaps, but Miss Smith made the tarot her own. She entered into the spirit of the cards and conjured images of a strongly mnemonic concrete lyricism that truly captured something of the zeitgeist of the modern occult revival, a defining counter-modernist trend that shaped early XXth century. 

They bear comparison and contrst to the cards made by Lady Frieda Harris under the instruction of the sinister Aleister Crowley. Superficially, those of Lady Harris have a deeper artistic merit, and Mr. Crowley has packed the designs with Qabbalistic allusions, but finally, compared to the charming directness of the Pixie Smith designs, they are turgid and pretentious. Miss Smith understood one of the keys to the tarot: the images on the cards are essentially caricatures. This is so in the medieval designs and she has retained that medieval flavor. The Crowley or ‘Thoth’ deck is, in contrast, a modernist mess. The same can be said of other more recent designs. They are contrived by comparison. No one quite captures the spirit of the tarot, and renders it modern yet integral, like Miss Smith.

The actual processes by which the Waite-Smith collaboration took place are not certain, but it seems likely that Mr. Waite’s input was largely restricted to the twenty-two Major Arcana. Of the fifty-six pip cards – the Minor Arcana – it is likely that Miss Smith had a very free hand. They, therefore, are her creation, and it is there that we see her genius. Mr. Waite’s Major Trumps display elements of his eclectic and sometimes misleading mash of symbols. Miss Smith’s Minor Arcana is a playhouse of little dramas and quaint allegories that bring the much-neglected minor cards new vitality. The chief inspiration for the Major Arcana seems to have been the XVIIIth century Tarot of Marseilles, while for the Minor Marcana Miss Smith appears to have looked to the Sola Busca Tarot of the XVth century for her model. The illustrator has successfully retained the essence of those earlier decks and recreated them in a new pictorial vocabulary. This is no small achievement. It is an achievement that is too often underestimated by those who like to criticize this tarot and sing the virtues of newer designs that are full of reckless innovations and artistic egoism. Miss Smith’s designs are not technically accomplished, but at least she shows faultless judgment as to how and when to depart from her medieval models and there is no egoism to be seen in the least.

The present writer, in any case, is an outspoken enthusiast for what should rightly be called the ‘Pixie Smith’ Tarot, and more broadly for Miss Smith’s art in general. Her tarot – even where Arthur Waite imposed his cranky symbolism upon the Major cards - is simply unsurpassed. She made the form her own. Her designs define the tarot in this epoch. She was not, admittedly, a great artist by the usual standards, and she was certainly not a successful one in monetary terms or in terms of wide recognition. Had she not made tarot cards for Mr. Waites she might have disappeared into obscurity entirely. But her work is beautiful and distinctive by other standards, with a unique charm, a delightful sense of decorative whimsy, a lovely innocence, an enchanting sense of the fay. Stuart Kaplan, director of US Games Inc., once remarked that had she lived in his day he could have made her a millionaire.

Miss Smith designed bookplates, made illustrations for numerous books and at one stage edited and illustrated her own magazine, the ‘Green Sheath’ which claimed its own ‘school’ of fellow artists. She came into contact with Mr. Waites through the poet W. B. Yeats who employed her as an illustrator for his poems and who inducted her into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Despite this dalliance with the occult, however, she later converted to Catholicism and throughout her later years ran a boarding house for old priests in Cornwall. 

Her real qualifications for illustrating the tarot was her passion for folklore; wrote or co-wrote and illustrated several books on the subject, including one of Jamaican folklore entitled Annancy Stories. It sold poorly but it was the work that first attracted the attention of the Yeats family who were, at the time, looking for an artist to illustrate Gaelic tales. The father of W. B. Yeats, John, once described her work in an extant letter as follows: “Pamela,” he said…

“…is bringing out a book of Jamaica folklore. Her work, whether a drawing or telling of a piece of folklore, is very direct and sincere and therefore original - its originality being its naïveté. I should feel safe in getting her to illustrate anything. She does not draw well, but has the right feeling for line and expression and colour.”

Then he adds in summary:

“I don't think there is anything great or profound in her, or very emotional or practical. She has the simplicity and naïveté of an old dry-as-dust savant - a savant with a child's heart.”

This is a blunt assessment but also a very accurate account of her character and work - nothing great or profound but a savant with a child’s heart. This is the quality that Mr. Yeats recognized in her and that she brought to Mr. Waite’s tarot cards. It is the quality that makes her one of the most endearing of the supposedly lesser female artists of her time. We see this quality in all her work, samples of which are given below. It is her folkish lack of sophistication and her naïveté that made her the perfect vehicle for the spirit of the modern tarot. In the estimation of the present author, at least, Pamela Colman Smith – Pixie Smith – deserves far greater appreciation than she received in her lifetime or since and should be counted as an important artist in her own right. It is fashionable in some circles to disparage the ‘Rider-Waite’ tarot because it is now deemed ‘old fashioned’ or lacking in a contemporary aesthetic. This is a miscalculation of its worth. It is still the best tarot. The inspired 
naïveté of Pixie Smith lives still. The simplicity of the 'Rider-Waite' designs – the simplisticity of their illustrator – is an original and honest simplicity that taps deep into the medieval roots of the tarot and speaks directly to the modern Western consciousness. Her other work has the same charm and deserves to be celebrated in wider circles today. 


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment