Pamela Colman Smith is probably the most famous illustrator you’ve never heard of. Colman Smith illustrated the first mass produced commercial set of Tarot cards, the Rider Waite Smith pack, most commonly known as the Rider Waite tarot, ‘Smith’ having been dropped from the title. Anyone interested in the occult or tarot will be familiar with her designs. Colman Smith collaborated with British occultist AE Waite to produce the set of these most widely used tarot cards.
Born in London in 1878, Colman Smith moved to Jamaica when she was 10 and there is some discussion as to whether she had Jamaican roots which have been whitewashed. Moving to America in 1893, she studied art and illustration and beginning work as a commercial illustrator. After her mother’s death in 1896, she joined a travelling theatre company as a set designer, the influence of which is apparent in her tarot designs. Her friendships with Yeats and Waite led her to join The Golden Dawn, the 19th Century occult order made famous by the membership of WB Yeats and Aleister Crowley.
She met Waite in The Golden Dawn where they collaborated to produce the tarot deck. The Rider Waite Smith tarot was published in 1909 and remains the most popular tarot deck. While the deck is well-known, Colman Smith’s name is often dropped from the deck and she died in obscurity in Cornwall in 1951.