May 12, 2009

Celebrating Pixie: The Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Tarot Set

US Games systems has just released the eagerly anticipated The Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Set in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. What a delicious set! Quite simply gorgeous, starting from the beautiful keepsake box it comes in, the cards printed on heavy card stock, and the details like the ribbon ties, all make this a scrumptious set, whether for the complete novice or the avid collector.

Upon opening the box, the left side has two books, post cards and prints, the right side containting the cards. The postcards and prints are delightful. Four large over sized postcards includes black and white portrait of Pamela. The six smaller postcards include a copy of The Empress. A card layout sheet is included, with a 5 Card Love Spread, 3 Card Relationship Spread, and the traditional Celtic cross layout called the Woven Spread.

The books include The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Waite, a nice, sturdy edition with Temperance on the cover. The 78 card Smith-Waite Centennial Edition Tarot Deck is reproduced from the original 1909 deck, and includes a lovely draw string organza bag. The deck itself seemed dark to me at first, but after playing with it, it seems easy on the eyes, reminding me of the gentle coloring in Mary Hanson-Roberts deck. Thick, sturdy, the cards have an English Rose on a pale blue background for the backs.

But the real delight was The Artwork and Times of Pamela Colman Smith by Stuart R. Kaplan. This little book is rich with insights into Pamela's (known as Pixie to her friends) inspirations, friendships, and collaborations as well as an extensive collection of artwork.

Over a hundred examples of her non-tarot art are featured. Simple line drawings in a wood block style tug at my heart while the more richly embellished illustrations are more evocative, from the cover for the Cases of Sherlock Holmes to The Annacy Stories - Folk Stories from Jamaica. I learned that "a distinctive feature in Smith's work is the union of foreground and background; although perspective is used, the background is as important visually as the foreground" (pg. 19).

Smith's book The Annacy Stories was published in 1899, which has been described by Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) as "perhaps the most original contribution to Negro folklore since Uncle Remus" (pg 30). One of my favorite illustrations is from the full color frontispiece for the book In the Valley of Stars There is a Tower of Silence, a Persian Tragedy by Smara Khamara. Many of the reproductions are from Mr. Kaplan's private collection- I only hope it is reprinted as a coffee table book one table so the lavish illustrations can be seen even better.

William Butler Yeats is credited with influencing Smith's work and introducing her to the order of the Golden Dawn. "Although Smith's art was heavily influenced by Symbolist art, it cannot be defined in terms of a school or movement. It is the outpouring of a highly original and expressive imagination. The figures often evoke the magical aura of the legendary days of chivalry, but they don't belong to a specific time or place. There appearance is as elusive as the setting in which they are placed" (pg 38).

In 1909 Arthur Waite commissioned Pamela to create a tarot deck, as he thought that adding images to the forty pip cards would be more meaningful. The earliest known extant examples of illustrated pips are part of the Sola-Busca deck, which origniated in the 15th century in Ferrara or Venice. However, Waite still placed more emphasis on the major arcana, allowing Pamela more freedom in designing the minor arcana. "The designs in the Rider-Waite deck exemplify what Smith sought to express in all her paintings and drawings: mysticism, ritual, imagination, fantasy and a deep experience of the emotions felt, but not always understood, in everyday life" (pg 78).

Smith was activist, joining the Suffrage Atelier in London, an organization dedicated to promoting women's right to vote. Never married, instead Pixie lived with her companion Mrs. Nora Lake who moved in with her in 1926 and stayed until her death. The book ends with an appendix with an article by Smith on "Should the Art Student Think" for the Craftsman Illustrated Monthly magazine. She writes, "Learn from everything, see everything, and above all, feel everything! And make other people when they look at your drawing feel it too... (even) through ugliness is beauty sometimes found"(pg.99).

A beautiful gift for yourself or a loved one, this is a set to savor. I'll be teaching my six week Journey through the Tarot class this summer at Twin Lakes College and will definitely encourage my students to consider The Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Set. This deluxe set is going to be release on May 15, 2009. Available locally at Bookshop Santa Cruz or Gateways, you can also order direct from US Games Systems or your local independent bookstore.