Art, Theatre and Tarot: The Extraordinary Life of Pamela Colman Smith

“She has always been strange. There is not a page of her life, not an incident, that is not overflowing with romance.” – “Winsome Witchery in London Drawing Rooms”, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. New York, Tuesday, November 1, 1904.

I recently worked on an incredible exhibition with the National Trust that I was so happy to be a part of. It tells the story of an incredible woman who lived an extraordinary life. Pamela Colman Smith, or ‘Pixie,’ was an artist, writer and occultist. I was given the task of creating the exhibition and sharing her story through interactive illustrations and animations.


Pamela was the artist behind one of the most famous tarot decks, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, more often known as the Rider-Waite Tarot (1909). The cards are completely captivating, incredibly vivid and full of imagination. Without creating the cards she would have fallen into obscurity, and despite them she died as a fairly unknown artist and with little money to her name. Despite this, she was a fascinating and truly unique woman.

She was born in England in 1878 and spent much of her life traveling between London, New York and Jamaica. Her mother was Jamaican, and she was highly influenced by Jamaican culture, eventually going on to write a short book of Jamaican folk stories. Her art was inspired by Art Nouveau and 19th-century symbolists. She was also inspired by synesthesia, and in several of her works she shows how her senses could blend. Pamela was able to ‘see’ music, and created captivating pieces where she translated music into paintings. She was particularly inspired by Bach, Schumann and Beethoven. At example of her synesthetic work is her painting Overture. “Egmont” Beethoven, where the figure of a woman seems to blend into the mountainside as three figures peer into the distance.

She dabbled in many areas, which is maybe why she was never distinguished in any field. She worked as an illustrator, a set designer, and a writer of novels and children’s books. She was also a member of the 20th-century occult movement, and a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. She created many political cartoons as part of a group of political artists known as the Suffrage Atelier. She was described in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1904, in the paragraph: ‘In London drawing rooms the enthusiasm and the fashion of the hour is Pamela Colman Smith, who, in a brilliant frock of orange with a red turban, sits on a board with two lighted candles in front of her and tells before crowds of delighted people weird and strange folklore tales of Jamaica.’ It also noted that she was ‘highly unconventional and full of mystery in her art, as well as in her life, a wonderful colorist […] a most ungirlish individuality, yet full of curious attraction.’


The part of her story that my worked focused on was a journal that she created while crossing the Atlantic on the S. S. Marquette with famous figures like the Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry and the Dracula writer Bram Stoker. Accompanying them was Bram Stoker’s theatre group, and they set out to on a theatrical tour of America. The journal, titled The Book of Merry Joys, contains lots of beautiful, and sometimes mischievous, caricatures of famous figures that accompanied her on the journey. My role was to take these illustrations and animation them with the same playfulness that fills Pamela’s pages. I love the vitality and fluidity of animation, and I had so much fun bringing the illustrations to life. I collated the animations, together with the story of Pamela and the creation of The Book of Merry Joys, on an iPad.

Smallhythe Place (National Trust)

I wanted the exhibition to be on display on an iPad in a National Trust property, instead of online, for two reasons. Firstly, I like my work to have an interactive element. I like that visitors can interact with the iPad, touch the screen, linger on an animation or drive the narrative forward at their own pace. I also wanted the iPad to be on display in a place that gave it context, a place that Pamela connected with. Pamela lived in National Trust property Smallhythe Place in 1909, when she was creating the Tarot Cards. She had a strong connection to the property and developed many friendships there. The iPad is now in the property on permanent display.

I am so proud to have been able to share Pamela’s story, to give her a ‘voice,’ 67 years after her passing. It means a lot to me that more people will be able to see her work, and that she will not simply be another female artist whose work was forgotten and regarded as unimportant.

You can see the project at Smallhythe Place, which is open Wednesday to Thursday from 11am to 5pm.

Pamela Colman Smith and the Book of Merry Joys project was created, designed and animated by Hannah Rose Shaw in collaboration with the National Trust. 

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