Queen of Wands: Women, Art, and Tarot

I could not have predicted this: tarot cards are showing up around here. This is not my doing. I was mildly interested at first, since they are made of paper and printed, but now I have warmed to their surreal imagery. The deck that caught me was produced as a sample book for a paper company. (I wish I'd thought of it.) We aren't studying how to tell fortunes, though, and won't be hanging out a shingle any time soon. We are looking at them as samples of art and history. 

Both men and women have illustrated the decks, but the most famous one was drawn by a woman who, at one time, was also a publisher. I wish she could have predicted how popular her work was going to be; her life might have been easier. Those who know tarot have likely stumbled upon the Rider-Waite deck designed for Arthur Edward Waite by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) and published by Rider & Co. It was originally called the Rider-Waite deck, but Smith's designs and drawings have been properly acknowledged and many current references add her name (Rider-Waite-Smith); now there is a Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set. 

Arthur Waite explained that the Queen of Wands indicated, "A dark woman, country-woman, friendly, chaste, loving and honorable.…Also, love of money, or a certain success in business." Smith's drawing of the Queen depicts a woman on a throne holding a wand with leaves growing out of it in one hand and a sunflower in the other; she is flanked by two lions, and a black cat sits in the foreground. It is a warm and rather welcoming image, I think, reminiscent of the arts & crafts movement and symbolism. The RWS deck, like many others that follow it, is very much of its time, even though it also draws on earlier decks.  

In the wonderful biography that accompanies the RWS deck, Stuart R. Kaplan, founder of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., wrote that Pamela, "Pixie," had a small press, but he did not elaborate. It was called the The Green Sheaf Press after her short-lived magazine, The Green Sheaf, but I can find no other information about it. Kaplan does show us pictures of "A Broadsheet" (1902), done with Jack Butler Yeats (artist and brother of poet William) which contained drawings and writings on a single page; illustrations for sheet music; and contributions to other journals. Smith was quite a character. She would listen to music and draw the visions that occurred to her; she was involved in theater and mysticism, held salons, and told stories in dialect. In addition to being an illustrator, she wrote prose and poetry and attempted to run a number of small businesses, which sadly failed each time. Although she was recognized by Alfred Steiglitz and her paintings were shown in his gallery in 1907, she died in debt at age 73. The deck she drew is still the most popular one and the source for many other decks since its 1909 debut.

Years ago, I bought an artist's book, a tetra-tetra-flexagon, called The Queen of Wands by Susan E. KingShe describes it on her website as a "paper sculpture." (See a photo of all the faces on page 129 of Making Handmade Books and page 117 of Expressive Handmade Books. You can still buy one from her for $15: edition of 800.) The book is based on a panel discussion from the early 1990s, and in the writing King muses about women and work, women and power, women and surrealism, and women and otherworldly connections. The flexagon contains images of a hand holding a pica stick (printer's ruler) and a hand holding the Queen of Wands card from what I now know is the Thoth Tarot Deck.

The Thoth deck was created in 1938-43, but it was first published in 1969. Its images were by another woman artist: "painted by Lady Frieda Harris under the direction of Aleister Crowley." In the accompanying pamphlet, Crowley explains that the Queen represents the "watery part of Fire, its fluidity and colour." The imagery is quite angular and cold to me and represents 1920s and 30s Futurism-inspired art deco. Even the yellow cat is icy. I must say that the Queen looks good, much better, in the warmer rose color of King's flexagon.

According to Susan's book, during this conference panel a pica stick was passed around and handed to each woman as she spoke: each speaker was to draw on the past as well as talk about the present and future of women in the book arts. King wrote, "If we held true willow wands, perhaps prophecy would be easier." In 1993, while there were many women printers and book artists, we could not have foreseen just how many there would be today, nearly twenty years later. Women printers and book artists are thriving: the field has grown. I like to think that Pamela Colman Smith and Lady Frieda Harris were each a Queen of Wands as well.

Ten decks, now. And counting. I've been asked to make a box for them as a birthday present. Purple book cloth has been requested. I can see it now…

Some strange depictions of women here, with their wands, batons, and what look like baseball bats…(You can click on the picture to see it larger).

Top row (left to right)
Rider-Waite-Smith: 1909; artist, Pamela Colman Smith
Aquarian Tarot: 1970, cropped version of RWS; artist, David Palladini (See Jane Yolan's The Girl Who Cried Flowers and Other Tales, for another example of his lovely work.)
Thoth Tarot Deck: published 1969, created from 1938-43; artist, Lady Frieda Harris
Linweave Tarot Pack: Brown Co., 1967; artist (this card) Nicolas Sidjakov. Company closed in 1989.
Conver Tarot: 1760; artist, Nicolas Conver (woodblocks)

Bottom row

Tarot of Marseilles by Jean Dodal (redrawing of the Marseilles Tarot): 1701
Ancient Italian Tarot: n.d.; "The entire Tarot tradition in Italy contained in a single deck"
Spanish Tarot: 1976; artist, Domenico Balbi
Ludvig Tarot: (Hungarian): 1998; artist, Zsuzsa Ludvig
Ship of Fools Tarot: Based on the Art of Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff: 2002; artist, Brian Williams; there are fools in every card, based on German artwork

But I'm just dipping my toe in. If you want to read further, I did find a blog by Mary K. Greer that is devoted to Tarot. And an interesting and informative post here, which includes the wonderful photo of Smith that is included in the book's biography. We were pleased and amused to find tarot cards (original, rare Oswald Wirth Tarot Deck) and strong women in the Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows film as well. The story of how the deck got into the movie is here.


You've reawakened my interest in tarot cards with this post. Thanks for the great links. Pamela Colman Smith was indeed a very interesting character.

I don't yet have the commemorative deck/set, so I don't know what's in the essay that came with it, but Stuart Kaplan, in Vol 3 of his Encyclopedia of Tarot, also has a fairly long essay in there about her (perhaps it's the same one?). After publishing The Green Sheaf magazine, he says she "turned to book publishing" and began the Green Sheaf Press with a partner in 1904. "Her aim was to print by subscription small editions of books on a hand press, and color them by hand. Although her planned editions of William Blake and Edward Calvert did not materialize, she published several books, including Tales from My Garden (illustrated by Smith), Four Plays by Laurence Alma Tadema, The Book of Hours (1905) by Lady Alix Egerton, A Sheaf of Songs (1905) by Alfred C. Calmour,… (he lists a few others)…In the Valley of Stars There Is a Tower of Silence (1906) by Smara Khamara with a full-color frontispiece by Smith…" She also published her own book of Jamaican folklore in 1905. But the business, like the rest, wasn't financially viable. I don't think it lasted all that long. Aside from that, there doesn't seem to be much other detail about who bound the books or anything else about how they were made or what they looked like.

Prior to this, as you mention, she and Jack Yeats put out A Broad Sheet. They were single sheets "15 x 20 inches…printed on one side with literature and hand-colored illustrations." She distributed it from her home. Kaplan says that hand coloring the editions of A Broad Sheet took so much of her time that she was forced to abandon other projects that would've paid more. Eventually, she gave it up and Jack Yeats carried on with it for a year after that.

At any rate, that's all I know about the publishing life of Pamela Colman Smith. Thanks again for a great post. I started to make a tarot deck, on and off, years ago. One day I'd love to go back to it.
Alisa said…
Excellent! Thank you so much for your additional info. I'll have to go look up the E. of Tarot now.