“She has always been strange. There is not a page of her life, not an incident, that is not overflowing with romance.”
I’ve just discovered a lengthy article about Pamela Colman Smith in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. New York, Tuesday, November 1, 1904. It gives many details of her large Brooklyn family (much of which I’ve left out) and describes her in terms of a hometown girl. Accompanying the article was this photograph of PCS as a very young girl.
“Winsome Witchery in London Drawing Rooms”
“Remarkable Success of a Height Girl in folk-Lore Tales”
“A Remarkable Personality”
“Pamela Coleman Smith, Closely Related to Many Prominent Brooklyn Families, and Her Strange Career”
In London drawing rooms the enthusiasm and the fashion of the hour is Pamela Coleman[sic] 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. [Note: incorrect spelling of Colman.]
“While she tells the stories of ‘Annancy,’ the spider-man, or of ‘Recundabundabrumunday,’ the witch, whose very mention sends joyously fearful shivers through the little Jamaican children,” says The Lamp, “or while she recounts the clever tricks and quaint sayings of “Gingy Fly,’ the blue bottle, she manipulates little figures cut from pasteboard and gaudily painted, that play a part in the weird legends.”
Pamela Coleman Smith is a [Brooklyn] Heights girl, and perhaps the most remarkable personality of any young woman who has sprung from that conservative body of families of high Brooklyn rank. Author, artist, designer, very nearly actress, mystic, and now public entertainer, brought up as a child in the West Indian Island of Jamaica, living among the artists in Manhattan and stage folk in London over many of her thirty years, she is yet close kin to a number of old Brooklyn households. Nearly related to her are the descendants of the Samuel E. Howards of South Brooklyn; Mrs. George Norman, Bryan H. Smith, Theodore E. Smith and Mrs. Willis L. Ogden of Pierrepont Street, and the William Coleman Howards of the Hill.
Highly unconventional and full of mystery in her art, as well as in her life, a wonderful colorist and excellent suggester of gown groupings for stage pageants, a most ungirlish individuality, yet full of curious attraction, Pamela Smith seems at last to have reached great success. Her book of folk-lore and her books of drawings in color never sold; in the theater she was but a strange woman scarcely on the boards at all, but as a whimsical tale teller she has all fashionable London at her feet.
Pamela Smith’s life has been a series of dramatic jumps. She was born in England; as a very young child she lived in Jamaica, and there, under the entire charge of a Jamaica negro nurse, she made long visits at more than one Heights house, she went to Pratt Institute, she lived in the old “French” apartment house in Manhattan, a famous edifice of glossily polished floors that is known as the very first of New York apartment houses; she attracted the attention of Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving, and went abroad with them. Both here and abroad she actually made her home with Miss Terry, who was fascinated with the strange and talented girl, and found her artistic ideas of the greatest value. Irving called her, “Ellen Terry’s little red-headed devil.”
There could be no greater contrast to the ordinary dainty young Heights girl, of pretty manners, of normal tendencies, conventional ways and the usual ambitions. Yet were an Ihpetonga to be danced to-day, Pamela Coleman Smith, this odd artist-mystic girl, would be trebly qualified for its inmost place.
Her name in full is Corinne Pamela Coleman Smith (“Mela”). She is now between 27 and 28. She got the name of Corinne from her mother. Those who believe in the inheriting of traits through parents will find ample confirmation in this girl. Her father was artistic to his finger tips, her mother one of the very cleverest Brooklyn amateur drawing room actresses of her day. Her mother’s brother (beside all this) was among the greatest of American artists, at one time a president of the National Academy, Samuel Coleman. . . . Pamela Smith’s wonderful ability as a colorist undoubtedly comes from this uncle of hers, who stands high among American painters and is best known for his paintings of Moorish architecture and Venetian vessels. He studied in Algiers and also has a great American reputation as a decorator. He and Louis Tiffany were for many years closely allied in artistic work, as well as being fast friends, and did many notable things together, among them the decoration of the Vanderbilt mansion. Charles Smith, artist rather than business man, hardly met with the material success of his brother. Living much of the time in London, at one time he represented in New York a very famous English firm of decorators—Nichols, Coleslaw & Co.
Altogether, in this young woman, who is the distinguished success of London private houses, there are a score of interesting chapters of personal Heights history. [I’ve cut several paragraphs enumerating all her relatives, past and present.]
With such connections and forebears Pamela Coleman Smith could scarcely fail to be a notable girl. What is so astonishing is that she should have developed along these extraordinary lines. Much of it is possibly due to her childhood spent in Jamaica, which seems to have filled her with negro mysticism. She has always been strange. There is not a page of her life, not an incident, that is not overflowing with romance.
Everywhere since her babyhood days a quaint old negro mammy has accompanied her. One of the earliest stories that is told of her is the pastime of her childhood of making little theatre, of writing plays and of managing puppets. Of ordinary education she has none. She is first remembered in Brooklyn as coming up from Jamaica a half grown girl, full of strange ways and unconventionalities. She had undoubted art talent, but could not be induced to study along regular lines. The two winters she spent at the Pratt Institute it was found absolutely impossible to hold her down, fetter her or even guide her. Some of the best American artists, on seeing her work, said that she could not be curbed in any way or she would accomplish nothing.
In Brooklyn she was always a curious figure, far removed from the ordinary girls’ point of view. She even dressed strangely, with a love for bizarre and barbaric colors. They often had her in visits at the Howard House, but she was a bird of passage, both before and after her father’s death. In the ordinary fashionable households she could not be happy. Part of the time she was visiting in Brooklyn, part of the time in apartments here, now in a studio apartment across the river. At one time Alice Boughton, who, as was told in the Eagle some months ago, has recently scored great triumphs in photography, lived with her. But Pamela Smith found no charm in even the life of art, as it is best known.
Her metier was to lie in bed until midday, to do all her painting and designing under artificial light. It was not until she came across Ellen Terry that she found real solace. How she attracted Miss Terry’s attention is a story that has never been told, but she did this very thing and Terry took such a fancy to her that both here and in England she actually lived for months with this English stage queen.
She did a book of wonderful color studies of Irving and Terry, a stage souvenir for which Brown Stokes wrote the letter press. Several other “picture books” in color are to her credit (besides her little book in black and white, “Annancy Tales”), “Widdicomb Fair,” pictures to a famous English pastoral song, “The Golden Vanity,” “The Green Bed.” Artists are enthusiastic over the marvelous color of these pictures, which betray extraordinary genius, but these books have never met with popular approval or had anything of a sale. her drawing has been called bad, but it is not only odd, unusual, with a touch of the grotesque, the wandering of figures quite untrained.
Kipling could not say too much about this young woman when he met her. Arnold Dolmetsch, the musician, was no less full of praise and enthusiasm. It is one of the most interesting things in Brooklyn life that such a personality should have come out of the heart of the Heights.”