Pamela Colman Smith (February 16, 1878—September 18, 1951) was an artist, illustrator, and writer. She is best known for designing the Rider-Waite-Smith deck of divinatory tarot cards for Arthur Edward Waite.

Smith was born in Pimlico, Middlesex (now London), England the daughter of an American merchant from Brooklyn, Charles Edward Smith and his American wife Corinne Colman. Due to her father’s job with the West India Improvement Company, the family often moved, spending time in London, Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York.

Smith's mother died when she was just 10 years old, and, often separated from her father due to his work, she was taken under the wing of the Lyceum Theatre group in London led by Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Bram Stoker. Her early teens years spent travelling around the country with the theatre group did much to influence her later art work.

By 1893, Smith had moved to Brooklyn to be with her father, where, at the age of 15, she enrolled at the relatively new Pratt Institute and studied art under the noted artist teacher Arthur Wesley Dow. She graduated four years later, and returning to England in 1899, she became a theatrical designer for a miniature theatre and an illustrator. She illustrated Ellen Terry's book on Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, The Russian Ballet, published in 1913. She joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1903 and met Waite.

In 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to produce a tarot deck with appeal to the world of art, and the result was the unique Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck (Rider being the name of the publisher), which has endured as the world's most popular 78-card tarot deck. The innovative cards depict full scenes with figures and symbols on all of the cards including the pips, and with Smith's distinctive designs they have become the basis for the designs of many subsequent packs.[1]

Smith wrote and illustrated several books about Jamaican folklore, including Annancy Stories (1902) which were about Jamaican versions of tales involving the traditional African folk figure Anansi the Spider. She also did a great deal of illustration work for William Butler Yeats and his brother Jack, but apart from the tarot deck, her art found little commercial success.

She never married. After the end of the First World War (1914-18), Smith received an inheritance that enabled her to move to Cornwall, an area popular with artists. She died in Bude, Cornwall on the 18th of September, 1951. After her death, all of her personal effects, including her paintings and drawings, were sold at auction to satisfy her debts.

Designing the Smith Waite Tarot

When Smith’s tarot was first published by Rider, in England, in December 1909, it was simply called Tarot Cards and it was accompanied by Arthur Edward Waite’s The Key to the Tarot, The following year Waite added Smith’s black and white drawings to the book and published it as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. In 1971, U.S. Games bought the right to publish the deck and published it under the title The Rider Tarot Deck. In later editions they changed the name to Rider Tarot and then Rider Waite Tarot. Today most scholars, in order to recognize Smith’s contribution, refer to the deck as the Waite-Smith Tarot.[2]

Waite is often cited as the designer of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but he was not an artist, and he commissioned Smith to design the deck because she was a talented and intuitive artist. It is more correct to credit Smith as the designer. Smith completed the art for the deck between April and October 1909, a six-month period. It is doubtful that Waite would have been in Smith’s studio all of this time directing her every move. Yet, this is a short period of time for an artist to complete eighty pictures (the number claimed by Smith in a letter to her art dealer Stieglitz in 1909). The illustrations were most likely done in Smith’s typical style in pen and ink and colored with water color. There is no way to edit such work except to redo an illustration and considering the short time allowed for the project it is unlikely that Waite could have requested this often. It is most likely that Waite described the designs that he desired for each of the major arcana complete with certain symbols that he wished them to contain and then stepped back and let Smith work in her usual spontaneous and intuitive manner. It is likely that for the minor arcana Waite simply provide a list of the meanings of each card and let Smith create them. Smith’s main influences for her tarot designs were her previous works, the 18th century French Tarot of Marseilles, and the 15th century Italian Sola Busca Tarot.[3]


  1. Jensen, Frank K. (2006) The Story Of the Waite-Smith Tarot, Association for Tarot Studies, Croydon Hills, Australia ISBN 0975712217
  2. Jensen
  3. Place, Robert M. (2005) The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, Tarcher/Penguin, New York ISBN 1585423491

Smallwikipedialogo.png This page uses content from Wikipedia. The original article was at Pamela Colman Smith. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with ParaWiki, the text of Wikipedia is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.