It was in the cards: Stamford publisher brings Pamela Colman Smith’s art to the masses, again
In Stuart Kaplan’s world, Pamela Colman Smith is as constant a presence mentally as she is physically, looking over him as he works in his Stamford office.
“That was the missing link,” he says of the portrait on the wall near his desk. “I had to have that painting.”
In 2013, after four decades of waiting, Kaplan finally secured, at auction, the work created by Alphaeus P. Cole in 1906. In it, Cole has captured the likeness of Colman Smith, a British-born artist who primarily is known as the illustrator of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, the most popular deck used today. For Kaplan, 86, the wait was not unlike all his other legwork over the past 40 years to give greater attention to Colman Smith.
“I’m glad that I can share this woman with more people,” he says on a recent morning. “I think this book will bring more people to her work, and bring out some of the missing pieces.”
That portrait is the cover of a new 440-page book published by Kaplan’s company, U.S. Games Systems Inc., which has published the Rider-Waite tarot deck since the early 1970s. For 50 years, the company has published tarot, divination, oracle and inspirational card decks, along with games and playing cards. Kaplan co-authored the illustrated biography, “Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story ($45),” with other Colman Smith scholars, including Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor and Melinda Boyd Parsons.
The book paints a comprehensive picture of this poet, author, folklorist, illustrator and publisher whose creative output primarily spans the mid-1890s to the 1920s. Yet, most people are only familiar with the three-month gig that brought her art to the masses — the iconic images for 78 tarot cards in 1909.
Born in London in 1878 to American parents, “Pixie” as she was known, was a worldwide traveler, spending her early years in Jamaica and later studying art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. Most of her life was spent in England. An artist seemingly on the rise, her paintings found a home in galleries in England and the United States, including Alfred Stielitz’s Photo-Secession Gallery — the first non-photographic artist to gain wall space there. Readers saw her work in books, some of which she wrote; theatrical brochures; “A Broad Sheet,” with Jack Yeats from 1902-03, and later her own publication “The Green Sheaf,” from 1903-04. She also created paintings or “music pictures” which were inspired by classical music.
She worked with Bram Stoker to illustrate his 1911 book “Lair of the White Worm,” designed costumes for a 1914 production in London of “Brer Rabbit and Mr. Fox,” and created posters. However, by 1919 she was back in England, in Cornwall, where she continued with her art. But by the time she died in 1951, in Bude, England, where she had moved in the early 1940s, her work, the authors write, had slipped into obscurity. That tarot deck was still reaching the masses, but it had been named for the publishers, not the artist.
“I’ve just always been on the hunt for everything she ever did,” says Kaplan, whose contribution to the book is a collection of Smith’s art work and primary sources, such as letters and documents. He was introduced to her tarot images when the late Donald Weiser, the founder of the publishing company Samuel Weiser, suggested that Kaplan purchase the rights to the deck. As early as 1982, Kaplan had sought to learn more about the artist, running ads in England seeking information on her grave site, or items and art people might possess or know about. So began his adventure and multiple trips to England, New York City and anywhere else that held the promise of building his collection.
“I had six solid filing cabinets of everyone I have ever contacted,” he says. “There must be 500 folders of correspondence of anyone who ever knew her or knew of her. I was exhaustive in trying to research this.”
And tenacious. When he discovered the United Kingdom’s National Trust had rare Colman Smith sketches he knew he had to have them for the book (spoiler alert: they are in there). If he had run into any problems, he promised himself he would send a letter to his His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales himself, to gain the request.
He also counts a series of lucky breaks and fortuitous coincidences in his quest. Sometimes it is a call out of the blue about an item he doesn’t know existed or he’s called just a the right time someone’s decided to part with an item.
Kaplan believes this to be the most comprehensive account of her body of work. However, he cannot find Colman Smith herself. Her gravesite remains a mystery.
“Sadly, my guess she is in a pauper’s grave somewhere in Bude,” he says. “I walked every gravestone in every Catholic cemetery there and I could not find one for her.”
Still, he has managed to marshal the forces to give a fitting sendoff to the woman whose talent helped build his company.
Kaplan has always been clear that he decided to leave Wall Street and become a divination and playing card publisher because he was attracted to the history and artwork of tarot cards, rather than their ability to divine the future. However, it seems natural to ask whether he thinks there was some sort of providence that caused the deck to land in his hands.
He smiles slowly. “I think there was.”
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @xtinahennessy