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Without a doubt, the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set is a juicy piece of swag for tarot readers, tarot collectors, and RWS die-hards. The boxed set is beautifully designed, and includes two books in addition to the centennial edition of the Smith-Waite Tarot deck reproduced from Stuart Kaplan’s personal copy of the original 1909 Rider-Waite Tarot. This grand dame of the tarot world is 100 years old and still going strong.

Attention has been lavished on every feature of this special edition. The presentation box opens to reveal two compartments. One compartment contains the books: “The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith: Artist of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck” by Stuart Kaplan and a fresh edition of A. E. Waite’s “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot,” along with several large and small postcard-sized reproductions of Smith’s non-tarot art, and a small pamphlet with three tarot spreads. The second compartment contains the tarot deck and an organza bag.

The Smith-Waite deck has some surprises for tarotists familiar with more recent versions of the RWS deck. Pixie Smith’s original line drawings are distinct in this printing, and it’s evident how much these drawings have since been tweaked, corrected, or discreetly improved in subsequent editions. One gets a better sense of the haste with which the original artwork must have been produced by the artist. Pen and ink is an unforgiving medium; mistakes cannot be corrected. The later tweaks to Smith’s drawings are most noticeable in the facial features of various people depicted in the deck.

Arthur Waite commissioned Smith to draw these images and paid her a pittance for it. In this edition it is clear that she cranked out those seventy-eight drawings with the speed of a Tasmanian Devil, likely in hopes of moving onto more lucrative projects. Rather than devaluing the deck, it actually brings the viewer closer to Smith in terms of feeling the flow of her hand across the page, and sensing the immediacy of her thought and effort. One wonders what she could have accomplished with adequate payment and more work time. It isn’t often that such hasty work becomes a benchmark and prototype for subsequent forms; Handel’s Messiah is a relevant example, as that work was whipped out in a month and has become a perennial favorite and a choral by-word for other composers. It is with this thought that this centennial edition gains even more importance to the tarot world. The RWS deck has seeded countless generations of clones, and it is beneficial for both tarotists and tarot artists to return to the source, so to speak, to reclaim their early 20th century roots.

The card backs are a field of pale teal, and have a black-and-white rose in the center and Smith’s initials in opposite corners (shown on page 5). Although I doubt that this is the original back design, it is a relief not to see the blue and black plaid socks design on the back of this lovely deck. The deck measures 2.75” x 4.75”.

Kaplan’s biography of Pamela Colman Smith is a feast for the senses, and supplies a wealth of full color images of artwork she created during her lifetime. Kaplan covers her life in as much detail as can be discovered now; sadly, Smith’s life was not well documented except for a few active periods. The breadth of her work is astonishing, while her lack of financial success in spite of her enormous output is heartbreaking. The extensive coverage of art, publications, sketches, and photographs amply demonstrates Kaplan’s many years of searching and collecting material on Smith. Where written documentation fails to tell her story, the artwork supplements the narrative to dramatic effect.

This 100th anniversary Commemorative Set is a wonderful production, highly recommended as much for the individual value of its various components as for its historic value and comprehensive impact. It is a phenomenal tribute to the artist who contributed this enduring legacy to the tarot, and who lingered in long obscurity until the clamoring of insistent aficionados in the tarot community established her in her rightful place as the godmother of the modern tarot deck.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Tarot deck by Pamela Colman Smith, with books by Stuart Kaplan and Arthur Waite.
US Games Systems, Inc, 2009.
Boxed set with books, postcards, tarot deck and organza tarot bag, $35.00

(previously published in the ATA Quarterly Journal, summer 2009 issue)
 
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