Review: Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set

Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set – Stuart R. Kaplan
U.S. Games Systems. Inc. 2009. 9781572816398.

Pamela Colman Smith is an unsung hero and artist in western occultism. She most famously illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot (I’ll discuss the naming convention later), largely based on Golden Dawn symbolism and teachings, and it is probably the most influential tarot deck ever. She was much more than this though, she was a quiet mystic, a member of the Golden Dawn, and a talented artist who received some recognition in her time and was sadly forgotten.

The Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set tries to bring this visionary woman back to our lives. The set contains two books, a tarot deck, and some artistic extras, which will all be discussed in their own time. This set was released in 2009 (somehow I missed hearing about it) on the centennial anniversary of the publishing of the Rider-Waite tarot and I think it is great collection to have.

Back of the Smith Waite Centennial Tarot

The first book included is The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith by Stuart R. Kaplan. This relatively small book of just over 100 pages is exactly what it sounds like. Kaplan tells the story of “Pixie’s” mysterious life. As you’re led through her life Kaplan also gives many examples of her art, in fact only once is there a spot where you can open the book and there isn’t some example of Pamela’s art. She lived a fascinating life; charmed, beautiful, sad, and lonely all at the same time. Most people only know Pamela as the Rider-Waite artist but she was far more than that, an accomplished artist who had shows in New York and London, an author and artist of folk tales from Jamaica, and a poet. The story is sad and the art is just beautiful. It was much to my dismay after reading the book I found out you cannot obtain prints of her artwork and my favourite painting from the book seems to have no presence on the internet at all.

The second book is The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite. I feel there is little to say about this book, it was originally published in 1911 to explain the Rider-Waite tarot. This particular edition does not contain the images of the cards.

Centennial Strength

The set comes with The Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition deck. This is not just another reprint of the Rider-Waite deck you’re used to seeing everywhere. First off, to clarify terminology, the deck you see everywhere, and probably have is properly called the Rider-Waite tarot; Waite after A.E. Waite and Rider after the publishing company that first produced it. Some people, myself included, refer to it as the Smith-Waite or Waite-Smith tarot in an attempt to remind people who gave us this deck. The deck included in this set is properly called The Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition, firmly putting forth that Pamela Colman Smith was one of the creators and will not be forgotten. There is more to it than just the name change though, the Rider-Waite deck is filled with bright, almost jarring colours. No yellow is a muted yellow, it is a daffodil screaming yellow, and this is a product of how the earlier decks were reproduced from the original.

Common Strength

For The Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition Kaplan has used a 1909 printing of the deck to restore the deck to its original colouring, something I find far more peaceful and elegant than the borderline cartoon colouring of the general deck. I find this makes the cards stand out more and the subtly of shading and symbolism easier to see and work with. Also, this deck has done away with that gawdy blue and white diamond pattern on the back of the cards; instead the back is adorned with Pamela’s monogram and a rose. It isn’t a reversible back due to the rose, but it is subtle enough that you still can’t pick out which way is up without turning the cards over. Without a doubt this version is replacing my Rider-Waite tarot.

Lastly the set comes with a few artistic extras. It contains six reproduced postcards with Pamela’s artwork, only one of which is an image from her tarot. It contains three 5×7 prints of some of her art and a 5×7 photo print of Pamela herself.

Everything comes in a handy box with packs away nicely. My only complaint about the set is one I’ve had with far too many decks I like and that is it contains a drawstring bag for the deck rather than a box. The box that the art, deck, and books come in is too large to carry around and I find decks not in boxes get damaged too easily so I have to find another storage device for my cards. Other than that small complaint, I found the set wonderful. It is great to see Pamela Colman Smith getting the attention she deserves and the deck, the art, and the books are just wonderful. Really a must have for any tarot enthusiast.


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