Pamela Colman Smith


Portrait by Alphaeus Cole, 1906

The lion's share of this information came from Melinda Boyd Parsons who is working on a biography of PCS. She has been more than generous with her research (and she has acres of it!). See the Bibliography for several of her previous essays, all of which are the best sources we have now until that biography comes out (just maybe before the glaciers return!). All misquotes and errors are my own.

Corinne Pamela Colman Smith was born on February 16, 1878 in London to Charles Smith and Corinne Colman. Both parents came from prominent American families. Charles Smith's family was in trade and law, with interests in art and collecting. He was related to the actor, William Gillette, through whom PCS may have met Ellen Terry and the rest of the theatre crowd. Corinne Colman's family was artistic and mystical, with several notable painters. Corinne herself was a parlor actress. All the women in her family seem to be named Pamela, Pamelia, or Corinne which makes things difficult to sort out.

Corinne Colman and Charles Smith married in 1870 when Charles was 24 and Corinne was 34. They may have met through the decorating firm that Charles worked for or through their, both, avid theatre-going. They were childless for the first eight years of their marriage and where they lived is unknown, though trips to England and Jamaica probably happened because of Charles' work. PCS was their only child.

Charles is mentioned as artistic, not practical, and not good with money, as PCS will come to be described. His obituary states he was at one time an upholstery manufacturer in Manchester, England, and later went to Jamaica where he was engaged in railroad building.

Charles and Corinne lived in Manchester for the first 10 years of PCS' life. this area was still a hotbed of spiritualism and radical thought and was probably an influence on PCS. The family moved to Jamaica around 1889 when PCS was 10, and lived there for several years. Here is where PCS learned the folklore that was an important part of her life from her nurse.

In 1893 PCS enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a co-educational, progressive school. The school emphasized "manual training" which educated the whole person - creatively, intellectually, and morally. Artists were not an elite but vibrant, creative, contributing members of society. Also here, PCS came under the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was influenced by Japanese art and taught that pictures could be composed the same way music was composed by using color, tone, shape, and line - much more abstract than imitative drawing. Art also had a spiritual content that reflected the Master Artist and the harmony woven into the substance of the world. Art was social and spiritual. Art could change the world. Emotion and ideas could be expressed indirectly but meaningfully in visual art by drawing or painting synaesthetically using a harmony of colored spaces.

Synaesthesia involves the crossing-over of sensory signals - hearing colors, seeing sounds, smelling music or words, etc. We all have this to some degree but PCS became famous for her artworks inspired by music. The music painting were directly channeled by listening to performances and drawing unconsciously. She often stated that if she paid attention to the drawing, she lost the image.

Dow's influence on her commercial artwork is very apparent up to around 1900. What appears simple, decorative, and childlike is actually very sophisticated. Nothing like her work had been seen in America up to that time.

PCS is often classified as a Symbolist. Symbolist art was a significant trend in the fin de siècle (end of the 1800s). It is difficult to firmly categorize this movement but there are some common features:

Symbolism was a reaction against the materialist heritage of the fin de siècle. It is often confused with the earlier Romanticism, but that was a reaction against the rationalist heritage of the Age of Enlightenment.

PCS spent from 1893 to 1897 at the Pratt, on and off. She had frequent absences due to illness and at the end of it all, did not graduate. In 1896, her mother died while the family was in Jamaica.

In 1897, when she was 19, she had a feature exhibition, along with Robert Henri, at William Macbeth's gallery. The show was reviewed in the NY Times. Four of her watercolors sold.

1899 was the wonder year for PCS. She published four books, three of which were hers entirely. The Golden Vanity/Green Bed, Widdicombe Fair, and Annancy Stories were all her work. The first two were limited editions with hand-colored prints. Annancy Stories consisted of Jamaican folk tales with line drawings. The fourth book to which she contributed color plates and line drawings was In Chimney Corners by Seamus MacManus. She toured with the Lyceum Company that year also. She and her father met John Butler Yeats, Willie's father, in the summer. In December, her father died.

Portrait of Henry Irving by PCS

The Lyceum Theatre was based in London and run by the actor, manager Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted. Irving was a very prominent actor in the Victorian era when spectacle or spectacular theatre was popular. These were massive stage productions with the cast of hundreds, historically accurate details galore, and a total experience for the audience. They were rather like today's special effects extravaganzas in movies where the plot or characters sometimes are lost in the crowd. Irving, however, was noted for restraint and taste along with a keen sense of staging, especially lighting. PCS spent several years touring and working with this company where she helped with costume design and stage design. These things are especially evident in her Tarot deck where each card is a complex vignette meant to convey a particular meaning. She also learned how to research.

The leading lady with this theatre company was Ellen Terry, the highest paid actress of the times. She was a formidable presence and noted for her charm. PCS lived with her for a time and became fast and lifelong friends with her daughter Edith Craig (Edy). Terry carried on a famous correspondence with Bernard Shaw which is available in a book. She led a wide and varied life, coming from a theatre family, and had several marriages, two children out of wedlock (the son Gordon Craig became a famous stage designer and character in his own right), yet still managed to remain admired by the general public. There are several books on her (and Irving) that are worth reading. The picture to the right is a sketch by PCS and shows Terry as Ellaline from The Amber Heart. Ellen Terry is the person who named PCS Pixie.

Another member of the Lyceum Theatre was its business manager, Bram Stoker. This was his day job when he wasn't writing novels, including Dracula. He was a popular person with the cast and crew and was affectionately known as 'Uncle Bramy.' PCS illustrated his last novel, Lair of the White Worm. The illustration to the left shows PCS, Edy, and Uncle Bramy. The picture is a reworking of one of the prints from Golden Vanity. Some claim that the character of Dracula was basely loosely on Henry Irving.

In 1900, PCS illustrated a souvenir booklet for her cousin, William Gillette, the first stage and radio Sherlock Holmes. Much of what we know as the regalia of Holmes was set by Gillette including the dressing gown, the pipe, the tobacco in a slipper, and the deerstalker hat.

In 1901, PCS joined the The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society. William Butler Yeats and Arthur Edward Waite were also members, along with Aleister Crowley and a host of others. PCS took the motto of Quod tibi id alliis, whatever you would have done to thee, do unto others. Also in this year, Queen Victoria died and Edward VII became king. Society changed radically as a breath of fresh air blew in and removed so many of the restraints and habits of the previous times.

Around the early 1900s, PCS begins to have visions and paint her 'music paintings.' She was gifted with a high degree of synaesthesia - she 'saw' music and was able to transmit those visions into tangible artworks. Synaesthesia is a crossing-over of sensory input. You 'hear' colors or 'see' music or 'smell' words and so on. We all have this to some extent. It is part of our memory and recall process. PCS developed this synaesthesia to a high degree and her work is compelling, not for the actual images but for what they imply. Reading the titles to her various paintings, you are forced to wonder where in the piece of music she found the images she did. And, also wonder, what else she saw that did not make it onto the page. She embodied the Symbolist ideal in this area.

In 1902, she worked with Jack Yeats on A Broad Sheet. This periodical contained original art and literature. This inspired her to create her own version which she started in 1903 as The Green Sheaf. This venture included contributors such as WB Yeats, Christopher St John (Christabel Marshall), Cecil French, AE (George William Russell), Gordon Craig, Dorothy Ward, and John Todhunter. It ran for only one year. As in many things, PCS' vision did not transmit into practical, economic success. Both A Broad Sheet (which ran through 1903) and The Green Sheaf were attempts at a small periodical, finely crafted. The terrors of mass production concerned many people who felt that the beauty of life and art was evaporating under the pressure to get more 'stuff' to more people. This is a concern we still face today - quality vs quantity - having a lot of stuff vs having a few nice (expensive) things. The Arts and Crafts Movement, both in England and America, tried to address this issue. Nowadays, the artifacts from that movement command high prices, so in a sense, that venture failed. Technology seemed to be driving out Art.

Also in 1903 PCS had an exhibition at John Baillie's gallery in London. This was an Arts and Crafts specialty shop. She also joined The Masquers, organized by Walter Crane, which was dedicated to a 'Theatre of Beauty.' This group disbanded several months later without accomplishing anything.

In 1904, PCS follows Arthur Waite to the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn (or Holy Order of the Golden Dawn). The original Golden Dawn had splintered due to personality conflicts and conflicting visions of what the organization should be (and of course, who was in charge). PCS is a member of the Stage Society at this point and, with Edith Craig, designed the set for WB Yeats' play Where There is Nothing.

Back in New York, on November 25, 1905, Alfred Stieglitz opened his gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue. More correctly, this is called The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. Stieglitz was at the forefront of photography and set high standards. His own photos are still considered some of the finest ever made. He also became one of the prime movers in the modern art movement, bringing the radically evolving works to the notice of people in America, whether they wanted it or not. In late December of 1906, PCS walked into this gallery with a portfolio of her work. There were problems in getting a Rodin exhibition mounted so, Stieglitz gave PCS a one-woman show, the first show by a non-photographer at the gallery. He was very impressed with her 'primitivism,' and the whole mystical process of her music paintings. They seemed to express "Truth" on paper, and "Truth" was being actively sought by many artists. It probably did not hurt that PCS dropped some names, WB Yeats, Arthur Symons, Ellen Terry. The first ten days of the exhibition were very lightly attended. Then, a review appeared in the New York Sun by James Gibbons Honeker that was full of praise. The gallery filled with people and several paintings were sold. Stieglitz took photographs of 22 of the paintings and issued a platinum print portfolio edition of only seven sets.

PCS had two more exhibits at 291, one in late February of 1908 with Willi Geiger and Donald Shaw MacLaughlin, and another solo exhibit in mid-March of 1909 - drawings in monochrome and color. The group exhibition was largely ignored. PCS gave a recital of West Indian nursery rhymes and chanted ballads at the opening of her third exhibition.

There is a letter from PCS to Steiglitz dated November 19, 1909 announcing that she just finished doing a set of 80 drawings for a Tarot deck for very little money. She offered to send over the original drawings for him to sell and hinted that she needed money. But nothing apparently came of that.

So why did Stieglitz not help PCS? At this point in time he was moving on with American modernist painters. PCS had for some time allied herself with England (she did not like Americans). And, probably more importantly, her work was not what Stieglitz was interested in promoting. More exciting things were happening on the art fronts and PCS was a throw-back to an earlier time, synaesthesia and music paintings notwithstanding. Her execution did not develop into the cutting-edge experimentation that was rampant. Works by Matisse, Gauguin, Lautrec, Picasso, Brancusi, Rodin, and others were beginning to be exhibited in America. Stieglitz was developing several American artists also such as Marin, Delauney, Hartley. And, Stieglitz always claimed that his galleries were not marketplaces. He did not promote the sale of artworks and required buyers to 'qualify' for a piece of work. Money was not the answer; Desire and understanding were the answers. Pieces sold at the gallery, but it was not something on which an artist could depend. Her work fell by the wayside, as did many artists. She lost a primary cheerleader and exposure.

Back to this Tarot deck. In December of 1909, Rider and Son published a new Tarot deck, conceived by Arthur Edward Waite and executed by PCS. Until that time, Tarot decks were rare, especially in England. They had to be imported from France and were mostly of the Marseille type. The great innovation of this new Tarot deck was its pictorial evocative Minor cards, those numbered one through ten. These cards now had scenes to illustrate meanings and not just four cups or seven swords. The advert to the left is from the January 1910 copy of The Occult Review. This is one of the first (and many) times that PCS' name will be misspelled - Coleman not Colman. The deck was intended to be a mass-market deck but with occult overtones. Waite was not letting all the secrets out. It has been the most influential deck of the modern times. Many decks are merely redressings of this one. The most important influence was in those illustrated Minor cards. The deck is still in production in a modified form as the Rider Tarot© or the Rider Waite Tarot©.

Also in 1909, PCS joined the Suffrage Atelier in London working for the vote for women. She contributed posters and other artwork to the cause. Below is one of the postcards, signed PS as she did for these items.. The Suffrage Atelier joined women and men together to produce media for the movement. Posters, postcards, programs, banners, all these things emphasized the need for women to get the vote.

And in 1909, PCS began to study for her conversion to Catholicism which took place in 1911.

In 1911, The Pioneer Players were formed by Edith Craig and PCS was a member. This group put on independent theatre programs, a theatre of ideas, though they have been often lumped in with feminist ideals. This was not quite true as actually more plays be men than women were presented. The group ran through WW1 (one of only two independent groups to do so) and after a break, hosted its last performance in 1925. The picture at the right is from a 1915 charity performance of Evreinov's play The Theatre of the Soul.

1911 also saw the publication of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot which now included PCS line art for the Tarot deck. This book is still in print under many titles and by many publishers.

In 1912, Gustave Stickley's Arts and Crafts magazine, The Craftsman, published an article on PCS by M Irwin MacDonald titled "The Fairy Faith and Pictured Music of Pamela Colman Smith." This article was illustrated with many painting and drawings by her.

In 1913, Ellen Terry wrote The Russian Ballet, illustrated by PCS with many line drawings that give a good sense of the movement of dance, especially from this renowned company. She also exhibited at the Exposition Universelle et International in Ghent. I have no information on the details of this last part.

1914 saw the publication of The Book of Friendly Giants by Eunice Fuller with many line drawings by PCS. This is the latest date for anything I have by PCS.

In 1918, PCS gets a legacy from an uncle and moves to Parc Garland, The Lizard, in Cornwall where she tries to run a retreat house for priests. This venture is not successful.

Now we come to the dark times. There is little to nothing known about the last 35 years of PCS' life. Whether she gave up on commercial prospects or was unsuccessful in getting them, there is no art from this period known. Yet, I hope. There is always the possibility that something will be discovered.

Pamela Colman Smith died on September 18, 1951 in Bude, Cornwall. She was in debt and all her possessions were auctioned off. Her grave site is unknown. But for a Tarot deck, she too would have remained unknown except for specialists in minor artists.

So, what can be said about Pamela Colman Smith at the end of everything? Many people have lamented her obscurity , her lack of commercial success, and her poverty at her death. They seem to consider her life to have been a failure. I am much more optimistic. This was a strong, vibrant woman who lived her life just as she wanted. She could have sold out at any time but did not. So, she didn't have a penny in the bank at her death. Is that the value of a life? I don't think so. She worked with a brilliant people over the years and was an equal. She cultivated a persona of naivete and mysticism and innocence. She was much shrewder than that. She was well read and well educated. She produced some very sophisticated works of art. She worked on the cutting edge of theatre production which is an ephemeral art. Those behind the scenes often were not recognized for their efforts (that is a modern thing). She did not, as far as we know, take the journey into abstraction that so many other artists did. She did not seem to 'develop' which was a prime consideration for those like Alfred Stieglitz. She found her styles and mostly stayed with them. She found her 'voice' to express what she saw when she heard music and turned that into paintings. Why change? Her life was admirable for the very fact that she lived it as she saw fit. How many of us do that? The costs were high, but you can't take it with you. You can only leave behind the echoes of what you were. And Pamela Colman Smith resonates deeply and is a model for us all. A life lived genuinely. I would want that for my epitaph.



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