22 year-old Pamela Colman-Smith, nicknamed Pixie, a US citizen living in London was having an existential crisis. On this day in November Smith needed money to fund a publishing enterprise featuring an Avant-Garde magazine called “The Green Sheaf.” Pixie, like the Peter-Pan of her illustrations, started to feel like her friends had stopped believing in her.
Pixie started making illustrations for Theater Set Design and Theater Costume Design as a child living in London. Her mother was a successful writer of illustrated children books. Her father traveled regularly between Brooklyn, Jamaica and London as auditor for an Industrial Financial Corp that owned the Jamaican Railroad. Hellen Terry, a world famous Shakespearean Theater Actress and co-founder of the Lyceum Theater, was her neighbor. Terry became a mentor and gave the energetic child with the dark hair and eyes the nickname Pixie. The family lived in Jamaica during Pixie’s adolescence.
Facing racial issues in New York, Colman-Smith felt London was her best choice for a career. Pixie left Pratt College in Brooklyn in 1899 and traveled to London with her father. Her father died that same year leaving her an orphan. Pixie's first network of clients came through her association with Terry and the Lyceum Theater group. Her career soared. Her first illustrated publication of African-Jamaican folk tales, Annancy Stories, was a success. She continued to build her client network through small theater performances of poetry and story reading in her home. Her list included famous playwrights, authors, poets and actors of the era. She excelled in Theatrical Set design and Costume design. Her clients were amazed at how easily she could make an illustration from the thought they were trying to project. If you think it is easy, try it. You will soon change your mind. She was able to monetize her synesthesia. That is seeing images while listening to music. Everyone has that, to some degree, but hers was extremely advanced. Her fans loved the intellectual tickling that her art evoked.
Although she was a child of the 2nd industrial revolution, her illustrations excluded anything from the mechanical age. She was always willing to share her knowledge and experience with other artists. She advised them to have the same energy that drives a piston.
Her client list included the most successful playwrights, writers, poets and theatrical performers at the turn of the 20th Century. In her innocence, she felt her clients were her friends. Pamela Coleman Smith could not get a small business loan. It was impossible in that era. No one would loan money for a woman owned business, especially a single woman owned business. She was paid by commissions.
Smith started the publication and used everything she had as leverage to make it work. She had the best content and images from the most respected artists from her network of clients. She continued to do set design and invested the commissions into the magazine. Her graphics were now being attributed to Green Sheaf School, indicating Pixie had a good grasp of Market Branding techniques. The young woman had worked in the Commercial Art industry as an illustrator since childhood, and had a thorough understanding of the latest technology.
Without funding for modern equipment she was forced to use a century old technique for the binding process. It was quaint, but Smith’s business plan called for Avant Garde. The subscription rate didn’t meet expectations. The business was undercapitalized. It failed after 13 issues. Pamela Coleman Smith shut it down. Poor Fool, she found herself at rock bottom financially.
Once she got fiscally stable again her career changed direction. She completed a large project that would become the defining project of her career. She was guaranteed complete artistic control. An immense project, it consisted of 80 illustrations for the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, accurately illustrated, delivered in 6 months. The project was delivered on time, on budget, to the complete satisfaction of the author, Arthur Waite. Sales of the deck were extremely successful. The only recognition Pixie got was a line in Waite’s accompanying book, “I commissioned a young woman to do the illustrations.” That was it. No residuals, no intellectual property. In a letter to her business associate, Alfred Stiglitz of the world famous Stiglitz Studio, she said of the project, “It was a large project for very little cash.” What contractor hasn’t made that same statement a time or two? No one knows how much Pixie left on the table, but Waite had a reputation as a tightwad and the contract was verbal.
Pixie drifted away from her Golden Dawn friends after that. She continued making fantastic illustrations for the Shakespearean Theater and for publication but on a print-shop scale. She became heavily involved in Woman's Sufferage. Female publishers were wary of the danger from an angry male population. She did a lot of work for community works projects, like international relief agencies and veterans programs. Her uncle from Brooklyn died and left her enough inheritance to help her escape the rat race and move as far away from London as possible, and still remain in England. She moved to the town of Lizard, in Cornwall. That is the area that was known to have the largest concentration of pixies.
Her last visit to the US was when she visited a friend in Brooklyn in 1946. A devoted Catholic, she died in 1951. Her name and ideas faded into antiquity.
In the Tarot deck The Fool doesn’t have a number, doesn’t belong to any suit, can go anywhere. The fool is a free spirit always appearing unexpectedly. It happened that way for Stuart Kaplan of US Games in 2009 when he published the Centennial edition of the Rider Waite Smith deck. He sells over 1.5 million decks each year, mostly as stocking stuffers at Christmas. That makes Pamela Colman Smith the most successful illustrator of 21st Century.
Seaport Jim finds inspiration through personal use of the Tarot. He appreciates a deep, inspirational understanding of his deepest thoughts that are organized through use of readings. Since he learned the source of that inspiration, the Illustrations of Pamela Colman Smith, he has make a special study of her life. The story here is probably something everyone thought about but didn’t see in the reality of Pixie’s life. I hope the reader will be influenced to investigate more
into her life, even filtered through this article. You will be amazed and love her too.