Whether or not you have ever had your tarot cards read—or have read someone else's—you are probably familiar with the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Its iconic imagery and symbolism are synonymous with tarot in the popular imagination and serve as the basis for countless subsequent decks. But, unless you're a tarot devotee, you probably don't know about Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951), the turn-of-the-19th-century artist who created the 78 illustrations for the Rider-Waite deck in 1909. Her legacy is at the heart of the story of U.S. Games Systems, the company that publishes that famous deck and many others. To celebrate a pair of milestones—the 140th anniversary of Smith's birth and the 50th anniversary of the founding of U.S. Games Systems—the company has published Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, an illustrated biography and critical work compiled by four scholars who delve deeply into Smith's life, influence, and art.
Released in July, the book is the brainchild of Stuart R. Kaplan, who founded U.S. Games Systems in 1968 and acquired the rights to the Rider-Waite deck two years later, bringing it to the attention of a wide U.S. audience. Kaplan is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Tarot, the seminal guide to the art of tarot, among other books. He developed a deep interest in Smith's life and work beyond the tarot deck. In addition to being an illustrator, she was a stage designer, poet, publisher, storyteller, folklorist, and suffragette. Kaplan has spent decades amassing an archive of her art, papers, publications, and history, which forms the basis for Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story; the book includes more than 400 images, many taken from Kaplan's personal collection.
Smith, also known as Pixie, lived an adventurous life. She was born in London to American parents, spent part of her youth in Jamaica, trained in illustration at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, and lived much of her adult life in England, publishing her art across the U.S. and Europe. She was also the first nonphotographic artist to be exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz at his Photo-Secession gallery. Smith was a profoundly unconventional figure in her time, devoting her life to her creative work, and the importance of her life and legacy have been widely underestimated. "Though Smith's accomplishments in the worlds of art, theater, and publishing are notable," Kaplan says, "she would be relatively obscure if not for the tarot deck she designed in 1909." This book seeks to set the record straight and offer the most complete reference available on Smith's life.
To create the book, Kaplan enlisted the help of three other scholars of Smith and tarot: Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O'Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons, each of whom traveled widely to research Smith's life and art. The book begins with a comprehensive biography by O'Connor, with chapters on the major episodes of Smith's life. Next comes a deep dive into Kaplan's archive, featuring full-color illustrations of Smith's nontarot art, as well as reproductions of original letters, documents, visitors book, poems, and more. Parsons contributes a series of essays on the influences and meanings of the Rider-Waite deck. The book concludes with Greer's account of Smith's legacy. Throughout, reproductions of Smith's paintings and drawings create an immersive reading experience.
"My hope is that Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story brings Pixie the recognition and respect she so richly deserves," says Kaplan, whose lifelong passion for Smith culminates in this book. It will be a treasure to tarot fans and anyone interested in turn-of-the-19th-century art. U.S. Games Systems will also release a limited edition slipcase version of the biography, signed and numbered by the authors.