Review: Pamela Colman Smith – The Untold Story

This book on Pamela Colman Smith (PCS) by Stuart Kaplan et al is an impressively hefty tome. Its feel reminded me of those comforting Reader’s Digest books of old, but instead of an eclectic combination of miscellaneous tales, this is all about Pamela, the versatile artist whose story managed to take over my life for a few years, as I daily sat listening to the hourly chime of the bells from the churchyard where she is buried, or chased around researching her life.

It is the work of four American scholars: Mary Greer, Melinda Boyd Parsons, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor and Stuart Kaplan. IMG_8450

Understandably when writing about an artist, the book, running to 440 pages, is heavy on images (over 400) as Stuart Kaplan has been a keen collector of PCS artefacts for many years, so is thereby free to share them. It is wonderful to see this material made available for everyone to enjoy, for which Mr Kaplan deserves thanks. Collectors often keep their treasures to themselves, which is sad for everyone else.The kind of book one dips into rather than reads in one sitting, I am pleased that nothing in it surprised me, but reinforced what I had read and learned from my own rather smaller scale researches. I did enjoy the list of names in her visitors’ book, however, of which I had read but never seen the evidence. It also brought home her prolific work rate as an artist/illustrator.

Pamela has been adopted as something of an icon in the fascinating world of tarot, yet I remain more intrigued by her Cornish years, her devoted Catholicism and obviously, her time in my beloved Bude, details about which remain elusive. Her life (1878-1951) is almost split into two halves. This book contains some discussion of her undoubted creativity and influences on and of her work during her earlier years as a career illustrator. The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck remains the world’s best seller, though it was never thus in her lifetime.

There is much more to know about Pamela. Slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are positioning together to create a whole; like most old puzzles, however, a few missing pieces remain. It is wonderful that people like Stuart Kaplan (and Mary Greer through her tarot blog) continue to share information and knowledge to create a greater understanding of this lesser-known American artist who spent most of her life in England, and indeed a good deal of it in Cornwall. It creates a real start to the process of knowing more about Pamela’s life and personality.

Pamela died relatively unknown from a heart condition in Bude in 1951, belying the fascinating life she had led in her early years. Regardless of age and debilitation, people all have narratives within, a backstory, so should never be written off as Pamela was by so many once she ceased to attract the public eye. Thanks to these authors for combining to bring Pamela Colman Smith once more into the limelight.

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Pamela Colman-Smith, photo courtesy of Darren Jones.
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Pendulums and dowsing rods – seeking Pamela’s grave in Bude with Mary Greer and fellow travellers, 2017
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Visitors at the Bencoolen Inn where Pamela lived and died. Includes Mary Greer, Susan Wands, author of fictional Magician and Fool, and myself next to Lorraine Puerto-Terron (co-owner of the Inn, wearing black, centre) among others.