In the cards: Pamela Colman Smith

‘a little round woman, scarcely more than a girl…who looked as if she had been the same age all her life…She was dressed in an orange-coloured coat that hung lose over a green skirt, with black tassels sewn all over the orange silk…She welcomes us with a most uncanny little shriek, half laugh, half exclamation…She was very dark…with a smile that was particularly infectious, the eyes of a joyous, excited child meeting the guests of a birthday party.’ He described her room as a ‘mad room out of a fairy tale’. (Arthur Ransome in The Bohemians.)

From Brooklyn Life 1907 Public Domain, unknown photographer.

Although we do not have a time for her, Pamela’s chart shows us a great deal. The first thing is the very close opposition between her Aquarius Sun and Uranus in Leo, they are in Mutual reception (in each other’s signs) and they are both square to Pluto in Taurus, making a Fixed T Square. She has a second Fixed T Square in her chart from Mars, Neptune in Taurus squaring Moon in Leo and Mercury in Aquarius. Mars, Neptune in Taurus gives artistic ability and practice (as inspiration is never enough to make an artist) the Moon in Leo makes a superb performer as she is in this photo storytelling, while Mercury in Aquarius gives a quick, analytical mind. In a similar way, her Sun in Aquarius gives a great intellect, forward thinking and eccentricity, while Uranus in Leo will demand attention, which an Aquarius Sun may feel uncomfortable about, square Pluto in Taurus can show that the material world, money may be a big issue in her life, her need to shine (Leo) at odds with her need for freedom (Aquarius) and her need to earn money or escape from family wealth (Taurus). Both these T Squares suggest conflict between the need for freedom (Aquarius) roots and safety (Taurus) and the need to shine (Leo). Fixed T Squares are difficult to negotiate, because they are a dynamic aspect but held back by fixity, there is always the risk of things getting ‘stuck’ and being unable to use the dynamic energy of the T Square.

Pamela Colman Smith: 16.2.1878 (no time 00h00) London.

Pamela was born in London to a wealthy American family. They moved to Jamaica in 1889 when she was eleven. She may have experienced this as a loss of freedom or banishment as Saturn was transiting her Leo Moon at that time and affecting all the planets in the T Square. In 1893, aged 15 she left Jamaica to study art in New York. During that year, Uranus (splits) was opposing her Mars at 10’ Taurus, Mars may have been in her 4th house of home and one parent. Three years later her mother died, which may have liberated from family responsibilities (Jupiter was conjunct her Moon). She left art school in 1897 without graduating, Uranus and Saturn were conjunct in Scorpio opposing her Pluto perhaps she had some negative experience (Pluto) which caused her to leave. In 1899 her father died, leaving her alone, again perhaps there was a feeling of liberation, Jupiter was conjunct her Neptune in Taurus (and perhaps she inherited some money).

In 1899 she left New York for London, another great change you would expect to show up in her chart. Again, we do not have the month, but at the beginning of the year (1st of Jan) Jupiter was opposite Neptune at 6’ Scorpio and applying to an opposition to her Mars at 10’ Taurus. Showing a new home and increased creativity (Neptune in Taurus).

In London, Pamela met Ellen Terry (who gave her the nickname Pixie) and Henry Irving and began working for their theatre company The Lyceum Theatre Group designing sets and costumes.

When not on tour Pixie held weekly gatherings at her London studio which became a meeting place for Bohemian Londoners. Ransome describes her home.

 ‘The walls were dark green and covered with brilliant-coloured drawing, etchings and pastel sketches. A large round table stood near the window, spread with bottles of painting inks with different tinted stopper, china toys, paperweights of odd designs, ashtrays, cigarette boxes, and books, it was lit up by a silver lamp and there was an urn in the middle of it, in which incense was burning.’

1899 was also the year her first book was published, The Anancy Stories based on folktales she heard when living in Jamaica as a child.

In 1901 she met W.B. Yeats and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where she was given the magical motto Quod tibi is aliis (to yourself as to others). She met A.E. Waite there and when there was a split in the Golden Dawn in 1902, she left with Waite who started the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn. 1901-2 was her Jupiter return year and in 1902, Saturn (longevity, ambition, career advancement) was conjunct her natal Jupiter while Jupiter had moved into Aquarius and was first conjunct her Mercury and then her Sun. So no Mars here in the pivotal time for her career, but Jupiter and Saturn. It is possible the Mars transits were concerned with home and parents, which might give her a 4th house Mars and therefore an Ascendant of Aquarius or perhaps Capricorn. Jupiter going over the Ascendant often shows a huge leap forward in a person’s life.

From The Lamp 1903 Public Domain Photographer unknown.

In 1909, Waite commissioned her to illustrate a Tarot deck. Between April and October of that year she made the eighty illustrations of Tarot cards. The cards were published in 1910, when Uranus was conjunct her Jupiter at 24’ Capricorn and Saturn was conjunct her Neptune at 5’ Taurus. Again, Jupiter and Saturn showing her career. What is not showing is that Chiron was transiting around 27’ Aquarius during 1909-10 conjunct her Sun. Chiron, the wound that does not heal, suggests her life’s work (Sun) would be overshadowed or in some way eclipsed (Chiron) which of course, is what happened. The Tarot pack was for years known as the Rider Waite pack, Rider after the publisher and Waite after A.E. Waite. Pamela’s contribution was underestimated or ignored.

Pamela with her Tarot cards, c1912 photographer unknown.

It is believed that Waite gave Pamela instructions and examples to illustrate the Major Arcana cards, but the images of the Minor Arcana are her own work entirely. These ‘pip’ cards which are like the ordinary playing cards, previously were not illustrated.  Rachel Pollack writes in Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom that by illustrating the Minor Arcana, ‘in one stroke Pamela Smith created a new tradition’ which all subsequent designs of Tarot packs have followed. 

In his book, the Key to the Tarot, Waite gives meanings to the Minor Arcana which are sometimes not reflected in Pamela’s design. The two of swords he describes as ‘friendship’ whereas Pamela’s design evokes a completely different meaning of blocking intimacy, being closed off emotionally and defended (the swords are over her heart).

 At the bottom right hand corner of each card is her signature. When she studied art with A.W.Dow who incorporated Japanese artistic styles, all his students made a woodcut of their initials. Pixie used this design to mark her work and ensure her name was remembered. It did, the intellectual property rights were hers alone and persisted long after she had fallen into obscurity. It is not known why the images are set in the Middle Ages (Jupiter in Capricorn perhaps-looking towards the past).

Pixie used music as her Muse. She drew and painted visions which came to her in trance while listening to music, a condition known as synesthesia (Neptune in Taurus). Pixie explained the process in the Strand Magazine in June 1908.

‘What I wish to make plain is that these are not pictures of the music theme […] but just what I see when I hear music. Thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound […] Subconscious energy lives in them all…When I take a brush in hand and the music begins it is like unlocking the door to a beautiful country […] with plains, mountains and the billowing sea.’

Pixie had the first non-photographic exhibition at Arthur Stieglitz gallery in Manhatten in 1907. Stieglitz later became Georgia O’Keeffe’s gallerist and some of Pamela’s unsold artworks from that exhibition are found in the O’Keefe archive at Yale. It was while in New York for the exhibition that Pamela met Florence Farr a luminary in the world of Yeats and the Golden Dawn. Pamela said the World card was based on Florence and the Queen of Wands was based on Ellen Terry.

Waite paid Pamela a flat fee for the cards, she reportedly later told Stieglitz that she had been working on a large project for very little money. Indeed, it is likely both Waite and Pixie would have been amazed at the impact her drawings have had. Her designs became the template for all subsequent Tarot decks which show illustrated Minor Arcana cards. The Rider Waite Colman pack has sold over one hundred million copies in over twenty countries.

Pamela often painted towers, which she wrote represented the paradoxes of fearful isolation against welcome sanctuary, purity versus frigidity, elevation versus heaviness, materialism versus spirituality.

‘I often see towers white and tall standing against a darkening sky. Those tall white towers that one sees afar topping the mountain crests like crowns of snow. Their silence hangs so heavy in the air that thoughts are stifled. The water’s hands are lifted up to warn those wayfarers who wander idly. But he who knows the way but gives the sign and enters towards that sacred way.’

In 1911 still under the influence of Saturn and Uranus, Pixie converted to Catholicism, which presumably cut her off from her occultist network (Uranus conjunct Jupiter, Saturn conjunct Neptune) and perhaps also work contacts. Post WW1 Pixie’s fame faded and in 1918, receiving a legacy she moved to Cornwall. Both Neptune and Saturn were conjunct her Leo Moon suggesting pragmatism (Saturn) and illusion (Neptune) crushed her flamboyant nature (Leo). Interestingly, she had this exact transit when her family moved to Jamaica in 1889. There is a feeling a failure and resignation with Moon Saturn contacts, especially in Fire signs. At the same time Uranus was conjunct her Sun showing radical change and a reinvention of herself. Pamela eventually opened a guest house for Catholic priests and lived quietly in the Southwest until her death in poverty forty years later in 1951.

After such a promising career, Pixie’s decline reminds me of one of my favourite Tarot cards, the Tower, which illustrates the ephemeral nature of our successes and the randomness of fate, anyone can be cast down, the Fates can be cruel. Pixie may not have enjoyed her success while she was alive, but her work is recognised everywhere. Perhaps she did have a twelfth house Sun (subject to the vagaries of fate- an archetypal life) which would give her either Venus or Saturn on a Pisces Ascendant. Venus in Pisces would give great beauty, while Saturn would show a swarthy complexion and a life of some difficulty. All this is conjecture, what we do know is she was a typical Aquarian trailblazer, living ahead of her time on her own terms.

[1] Parsons, Melinda Boyd. Mysticism in London in The Spiritual Image in Modern Art. 1987. Regier Kathleen.  (ed.) Theosophical Publishing House. Wheaton, Ill,p.87.

Arthur Ransome, Bohemia in London, p.56-7. Dodd Mead, New York, 1907.

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