Pamela Colman Smith, called “Pixie” by her friends, was born to American parents on February 16, 1878 in London, England and died September 18 1951, at the age of 73 in Bude, Cornwall. Despite her lasting connection with England, throughout her youth she called herself an American, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1893 to 97, then touring with Ellen Terry and Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, and visiting the US frequently after that. She worked in the theatre, struggled to make a name for herself as an illustrator, explored the occult, was a suffragette and then, just before WWI, converted to Catholicism and retired with a modest inheritance to run a priest’s retreat in Cornwall. Except for a few small items, mostly for friends or relatives, her public artworks and appearances ceased.
Later this year Marcus Katz and Tali Godwin are bringing out a book focusing on Pamela’s contributions to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck: Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot. In the meantime, I’m pleased to present the texts of several newspaper articles from Pamela’s hometown. I would hesitate to include some of these for their lack of detail about Pixie herself, but they are helpful in letting us know her movements and hinting at her then current endeavors.
“a pretty and fanciful design”
Sun., May 24, 1896
Miss Pamela Coleman Smith of Pratt had a pretty and fanciful design showing a group of fairies dancing around a toadstool, a sort of midsummer night’s dream affair. Another poster by Miss Smith was most originally worked out. A child picking tiger lilies beside a pool where her reflection was cast was the subject. The color was most effective. [18-year-old PCS shows her work at a local art show.]
—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sun., Dec. 19, 1897
The fair held by the Art Student’s Association, on the afternoon and evening of December 18, was a financial success as well as a social one. The great attraction, both afternoon and evening, was the play given in Mis Pamela Coleman Smith’s little pasteboard theater. A study in composition, the successive pictures made by the pasteboard figures against an artistic background were exceedingly suggestive. The demand for tickets was so great that three performances were given in the afternoon instead of one, as first planned.
—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“old Irish folk-lore”
Sun., Dec. 25, 1898
Among the holiday publications of R. H. Russell & Co. are a series of color prints, by Pamela Colman Smith, one called “Recess” depicting children at play, the others illustrating some passage in literature.
One illustrates a quotation from “Macbeth,” a second is a scene of “Twelfth Night” merry-making, a third deals with the childhood of Christ, and a fourth illustrates “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” a play of old Irish folk-lore.
—The Morning Times (Washington D.C.)
“Whatever is quaint and old worldliest . . .
And all this is the work of a mere girl!”
Sun., Jan. 15, 1899
“A Jamaica Spider”
He is the Hero of Miss Smith’s New Book
An American Boutet de Monvel*, a woman with as keen an appreciation of negro folk lore as Joel Chandler Harris is the correctest way to define the talent of a quaint little American woman who claims the authorship of one of the cleverest books of the day. Miss Pamela Coleman Smith talks of the “Annancy Stories—Folk Tales of Jamaica,” with keen interest. [*Boutet de Monvel references a French children’s book illustrator – click to enlarge the picture to right. Notice hats like those found on the 2 and 6 of Pentacles.]
“I am an American,” she insisted, “though I was born in London, and have lived most of my life in Jamaica, and all the art training I have I got at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.”
She had a three years’ course there, and then with the most amazing industry, prompted by a strong, deep love of her art, she began to work at art as a profession. Perhaps one of her first most successful endeavors was done only for fun, and it consisted of the building and peopling of one of the completest miniature theatres ever seen. The stage measures scarcely more than eighteen inches square, but its accompaniment of scenes, actors and costumes is so perfect and luxurious that any manager might look on enviously. Three hundred gorgeously costumed characters will appear in a single play for the dramas Miss Smith writes herself, and as she prefers tragedies and comedies the scenes of which are all laid in past centuries, the humblest pasteboard sure is in attitude, expression and dress a finished little picture. By the simplest mechanism the figures are made to move about, a daintily painted curtain rolls up and down, and the scenes are set or shifted with professional cleverness.
While working at the theatre, merely to amuse youthful relatives, she turned her hand to larger work, and having collected a number of the legends current among the negroes of Jamaica, she set out to illustrate her book. The volume of Annancy Stories was the outcome, which is illustrated by twenty-two full-page pictures from Miss Smith’s hand, beside the cover design, which is her own work.
Annancy is a perfectly new character in fairy lore; he is a spider who possesses a mother, and he is as beloved an elf among the Jamaica negroes as is Brer Rabbit among the negroes of our Soutern Sates. In the quaint dialect of the simple island blacks, Miss Smith has told the stories while she has looked straight into fairyland to find the models for her pictures. [The hand-colored picture on left is from a later book called Chim-Chim.]
With the most astonishing invention, imagination and humor she has pictured a series of strange, alluring little people, who cannot fail to win the childish heart, and at the same time delight appreciative grown folks. Indeed it is very safe to say that Annancy and his capers will become as familiar with nursery folk as Uncle Remus, or Mougli and his friends. And all this is the work of a mere girl!
From illustrating her book of Jamaica stories, Miss Smith next fell upon a collection of old English and Scotch ballads, and it is here that the likeness of her genius to that of Walter Crane is apparent. Whatever is quaint and old worldliest seems to find in her a natural affinity.
“I never look up a costume, and yet I seem to know exactly what every character should wear,” she explained when some one inquired where she had found her quaint suits and dresses. From the ballads her quick fancy next found a limitless field in Shakespeare, and her second book is a Shakespearan alphabet made up of full-page illustrations of characters whose names run from A to Z, accompanied by their most brilliant sayings. Here, as in the first book, is the same lively imagination, love of striking but always essentially decorative color effects and unfaltering innate knowledge of costume.
Miss Smith is an American girl to be proud of and one whose future can be reckoned on as surely as a love of industry, and her art and a very great deal of talent and ambition can guarantee it.
—The Morning Times (Washington D.C.)