Pamela Colman “Pixie” Smith has a history as sprawling and unique as her many names and creative ventures. A prolific illustrator, author, poet, folklorist, publisher, theater set designer, and psychic artist, Pixie spent most of her life painting, drawing, and writing in her own exceptional ways.
To share a biography about Pixie is to share with you a brand-new tarot deck, along with its little white booklet, and then encourage you to read, research, and decide for yourself what you believe. Opinions and theories about the artist’s life, her psychic and occult practices, and especially her ethnicity are as varied as interpretations of her famous tarot illustrations. Research Smith’s name and you won’t find two stories about her that are the same. Gaze at her photos and compare them with those of her ancestral lineage, and, well, you’re invited to believe what you will about her background—I know I have my own theories.
Corrine Pamela Mary Colman Smith was born on February 16, 1878, in London, England, the only child of upper-class Americans Charles Edward Smith and Corinne Colman Smith. The son of Brooklyn mayor and New York Senator Cyrus Porter Smith, Pixie’s father was a decorator and developer, and her mother was from an affluent New England family of book publishers and artists. Her maternal uncle, Samuel Colman, was among the famed Hudson River School painters and his work hangs in the Smithsonian.
Because of her mother’s love for London theater and her father’s professional work in Jamaica, Pixie spent most of her formative years traveling between the two places. While in Jamaica, she was profoundly inspired by the culture and language, so she wrote and illustrated two works of Jamaican folklore, Annancy Stories and Chim-Chim, Folk Stories from Jamaica. Additionally, from 1893 to 1897, the artist lived in New York, studying at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute where her painting style was heavily inspired by Japanese watercolor techniques.
At the age of 21, after her parents both died, Pixie became actively involved in both the English and New York arts scenes. Right at the turn of the 20th century, when the arts were booming with unconventional ideas, and printing and publishing technology was advancing, Pixie surrounded herself with friends such as stage actress Ellen Terry (who gave her the nickname “Pixie” because of her small frame and impish spirit) and her suffragette daughter Edy Craig. She illustrated projects for poet William Butler Yeats and his brother, artist Jack Yeats. Pixie also befriended stage actress Maude Adams, whose most popular role was Peter Pan, and she developed a fond connection with Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, whom she affectionately referred to as “Uncle Bramy.” In fact, she illustrated his final horror novel, The Lair of the White Worm.
In 1901, Pixie opened a studio space in London where she invited artists, authors, and actors to enjoy carefree evenings of arts and entertainment, as described in Arthur Ransome’s book Bohemia in London. Additionally, she wrote, illustrated, and published her own literary magazine, The Green Sheaf, with contributions from many of her aforementioned friends. After The Green Sheaf’s short-lived run of only 13 issues, Pixie established The Green Sheaf Press, which published novels, poetry, and folklore mostly by women writers.
Although earning very little for the project, in 1909 Pixie was commissioned by occultist scholar and poet A. E. Waite to create 80 paintings that would be used to illustrate the most popular tarot deck to date, the Smith-Waite Tarot. You may also know this deck as the Rider-Waite-Smith or the Rider-Waite deck, as William Rider and Son was its original publisher.
In the 2018 biography, Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, authors Stuart Kaplan (founder of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., the first company to publish tarot decks in the United States), Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons note that A. E. Waite not only commissioned Smith to create his tarot images, but he encouraged her to take creative liberties with the Minor Arcana. As such, Pixie relied heavily upon her knowledge of religious and occult symbology as well as her own psychic abilities. A psychic artist, Pixie experienced a phenomenon known as synesthesia, a condition through which music and other sounds can be visualized as colors and shapes. In an interview by The Strand Magazine in 1908, Smith said, “[I paint] what I see when I hear music—thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound.”
Pamela Colman Smith’s painting style and her creation of the original Smith-Waite Tarot illustrations are important to note because although her contributions to both tarot and the arts are vast and remarkable, she long went unrecognized. Speculation around her ethnicity and sexual orientation are believed to have motivated initial erasure from the tarot’s credits; however, with the uncovering of information about the artist through books such as Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Pixie and her work are finally gaining the recognition they deserve.
When planning and writing my novels, working with a deck that uses the classic Smith-Waite tarot illustrations is very important to me. Not only is Pixie’s deck the most widely recognized and accessible, but spanning many decades she was largely underappreciated and even uncredited for her contributions not only to tarot but to the arts. Having faded into obscurity in the decades preceding her death on September 18, 1951, in Bude, Cornwall, Pixie’s name wouldn’t become mentioned in most arts, literature, and tarot circles until Stuart Kaplan obtained the rights to publish the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in America in the early 1970s. Although her gravesite is unknown, Pixie’s legacy lives on in the hearts and hands of those who admire her work.
A Note About Diversity
While I prefer working with Pixie’s illustrations to honor, remember, and credit her as the artist who illustrated the world’s most famous tarot deck to date, it behooves me to note the lack of diversity within her illustrations. This was not by Pixie’s choosing; the lack of inclusion was by design.
When A. E. Waite commissioned Smith to illustrate his new and unique version of the cards—the first design to include illustrated pips—his vision for most (if not all) of the figures was of white European descent. Therefore, there is very little ethnic diversity (if any at all) within the Smith-Waite Tarot. There is also no diversity of other factors, such as gender or body types. Despite these glaring oversights, as you work with the tarot, I hope you will grow to appreciate Pixie’s art as much as I have, allowing her images to help spark your intuition and inspire robust storytelling.
Stay tuned! In my next post, I will offer my recommendations for Pixie-inspired decks that are more inclusive and diverse, which can be especially inspiring for writers.
1. Smith, P. C. (1899). Annancy Stories. R. H. Russell, New York.
2. Smith, P. C. (1905). Chim-Chim: Folk Stories from Jamaica. The Green Sheaf, London.
3. Biography Pamela Colman Smith. (n.d.). https://www.daneel.franken.de/tarot/Biography%20Pamela%20Colman%20Smith.html
4. Kaplan, S. R. (2018). Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story. U.S. Games Systems Inc.
5. Ransome, A. (1907). Bohemia in London . . . With Illustrations by Fred Taylor.
6. Wirsching, T. (2021, March 29). Pamela Colman Smith: American. The American Renaissance Tarot. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.americanrenaissancetarot.com/blog/2019/3/1/pamela-colman-smith-american
In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of literary, Southern Gothic, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.
Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative®, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. She holds a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, and she has worked as an instructional designer for nearly twenty years.
When she’s not writing fiction, Mandy enjoys the movies, theater, music, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, and binging The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to enhance creativity and foster wellness. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four sons, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at haintbluecreative.com and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.