I couldn’t let this day go by without saying a word about Pamela Colman Smith (February 16, 1878 – September 18, 1951), because she was connected to two topics on this blog: the occult and horror fiction.
Pamela had an exotic background. Born to an American father and Jamaican mother, she grew up in England, Jamaica, and the United States. Illustrator, artist, reteller of Jamaican folk stories, she sounds like an interesting person. And she got around, too, meeting a number of famous people.
Among the people she met was poet William Butler Yeats, who introduced her to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most notable British occult group of the era. She joined the Golden Dawn in 1901. There she met A. E. Waite, who commissioned her to draw the Tarot Deck he was devising. The result, published in 1909, was the most influential deck produced in the Twentieth Century, variously called the Rider-Waite or Waite-Smith deck. Odds are, if you’ve ever used a tarot deck, it either was a copy of the Waite-Smith deck or heavily influenced by it. The trumps (Major Arcana) are so familiar that I’ve posted a Minor Arcana card here so readers can study Smith’s work from a fresh perspective.
A few years later, in 1911, Pamela was commissioned to provide the drawings for Bram Stoker’s last novel, The Lair of the White Worm. Lair is in the same mold as Dracula, but much less successful. Indeed, it’s so bad that it was rumored Stoker was dying of tertiary syphilis while he wrote it. Probably its strongest feature is the surreal nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the story. Smith must have recognized this, as her drawings certainly capture the surreal element.
Pamela Colman Smith’s career seems to have petered out with the coming of the First World War. After it was over, she received a legacy and moved to Cornwall, where she died many years later.