Pamela Colman Smith: From Tarot Artist to Suffrage Activist

Today, Pamela Colman Smith is primarily remembered for designing the storied 1909 tarot deck that served as the model for T. S. Eliot’s Madame Sosostris and “her wicked pack of cards” in The Waste Land.[1] For almost one hundred years it was known as the Rider-Waite deck, named for the mystic A. E. Waite, who is credited with conceiving the deck, and the London publisher, William Rider. This omission perfectly encapsulates Colman Smith’s gendered erasure from the cultural imagination, a type of misogyny that affected many women artists and writers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Colman Smith was much more than the graphic designer of the tarot deck. Although she has seemingly vanished from our current understanding of modernism, Colman Smith was far from invisible during the approximately thirty years that she was most active (1896–1927). Her paintings were exhibited in a range of galleries in the U.S. and England, including several major international art exhibitions. She also had the distinction of being the first non-photographic artist (beating out Rodin) to have her work shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in Manhattan in January 1907. Being very prolific, Colman Smith illustrated over twenty books and pamphlets, wrote two collections of Afro-Jamaican Anansi folktales, and co-edited A Broad Sheet with Jack Yeats from 1902 to 1903. Forging her own path, she created and edited The Green Sheaf from 1903 to 1904, and, after its demise, ran the Green Sheaf Press, which focused particularly on women writers. This essay will focus specifically on her previously unknown involvement with the women’s suffrage movement in England. She was an active member of the Suffrage Atelier and created multiple posters and postcards advocating for women’s rights in addition to participating in the Pioneer Players. Colman Smith was jailed for suffrage activities at least once and helped working-class women attend suffrage rallies. I will conclude by briefly discussing how her suffrage involvement was also reflected in her tarot designs.

While Colman Smith’s contributions to Laurence Housman’s 1911 Anti-Suffrage Alphabet and membership in Edith Craig’s Pioneer Players theater society are relatively well known, the extent of Colman Smith’s connection with the suffrage movement has long been unclear.[2] This is primarily because most of her work for the Suffrage Atelier was unsigned, in accordance with the group’s practice. My analysis of the organization’s posters and cartoons revealed that many of the posters show the hallmarks of Colman Smith’s style, and that her political involvement in the movement was much more extensive than originally believed. In addition, I have found archival material in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics showing that Colman Smith actively helped working-class women to attend suffrage meetings, contacted suffrage leaders for help on their behalf, and was imprisoned in Royal Holloway for her suffrage activities. Moreover, this involvement in the suffrage movement played a key role in the development of Colman Smith’s feminist consciousness and the evolution of her symbolic depiction of women.

Letters from the 1890s through the 1910s show that Colman Smith was fiercely independent, hated injustice and hypocrisy in all its forms, and believed that women were just as capable and creative as men. These inclinations were likely strengthened through her friendships and artistic partnerships with many like-minded individuals. The most important of these during the early twentieth century were with Ellen Terry, her daughter Edith Craig, and Craig’s long-time partner Christopher St. John. As Katherine Cockin has noted, “Terry had become an icon as the archetypal ‘free woman’” who inspired many to agitate for increased rights.[3] Craig and St. John were both actively involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, writing and directly suffrage plays, including A Pageant of Great Women. 

While she was likely introduced to the women’s suffrage movement through the work of Craig and St. John, Colman Smith’s largest and most substantial contributions were made through the Suffrage Atelier. Formed in the spring of 1909 by Laurence and Clemence Housman—siblings of the poet A. E. Housman—to prepare for the upcoming Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.) demonstration, the Suffrage Atelier was part of the more militant side of the suffrage movement.[4] By 1910 the group had about one hundred members whose aim, as Votes for Women noted, was to create “effective picture propaganda for the suffrage.”[5] The group became a major political entity and encouraged professional and non-professional artists to submit work, paying them a small percentage of the profits.[6] This was highly unusual for suffrage organizations, which generally relied on voluntary contributions from members.[7] One reason for this was that the group included members from the working classes, as well as the middle and upper classes.[8] 

From its official home in Kensington—a shed at the end of the Housman siblings’ garden—the Suffrage Atelier offered a range of activities that focused both on developing women’s artistic skills and shaping their suffrage identities.[9] References in Votes for Women make clear that this included educational and creative classes, but a significant part of the Atelier’s time was devoted to making textile banners for suffrage rallies and processions. Laurence Housman designed many of them while his sister, Clemence, led the teams of workers who embroidered them.[10] As Tara Morton has noted, “Working cooperatively on banners meant that new relationships could be forged between women based upon a commonality of interests in craft and the suffrage, rather than on normative family relations.”[11] While it is unclear to what extent, if any, Colman Smith participated in the Atelier’s banner-making projects, she did have some experience making banners with W.B. Yeats’s sisters. In addition to selling these print materials, the Suffrage Atelier taught women how to design and print them using traditional materials. As Lisa Tickner has detailed, unlike the Artists’ Suffrage League, which relied primarily on commercial lithographs, the Suffrage Atelier used much older engraving processes and, from at least 1910, the group owned its own printing press.[12] It is fascinating to speculate whether Colman Smith, who had owned a press at least during the 1904–06 period when she operated her Green Sheaf Press, was involved in the training of these women and the printing of the materials.

Figure 1: P.S. “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two Mocking Birds in the Bush,” cartoon for the Suffrage Atelier. Courtesy of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

Colman Smith did contribute at least two identifiable postcards, which are signed with her initials rather than the distinctive caduceus that adorns her other work.[13] The most famous, entitled “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two Mocking-Birds in the Bush,” [Figure 1] depicts a woman in profile firmly holding a bird, while two sneering birds with human faces—the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George (identified by helpful tags around their necks)—perch in an ivy tree.[14] Text on the bottom that is attributed to “A. and L.G.” states, “If you drop the Conciliation Bill we may do something for you in the dim and speculative future.”[15] The historical events that inspired this cartoon appear to have been two comments by the politicians in 1908. On May 27, Asquith, who a week earlier had promised a women’s suffrage amendment before the end of the parliamentary session if a Conciliation Bill was dropped, was asked by an anti-suffragist when such an amendment would occur and answered: “My honourable friend has asked me a contingent question with regard to a remote and speculative future.” Six months later, on December 5, Asquith addressed members of the W.S.P.U. in the Albert Hall, many of whom had grown frustrated by the delays in his promises and heckled him loudly, leading to forcible ejections.[16] He then repeated his “old worn-out promise” to introduce a Reform Bill and not to oppose a women’s suffrage amendment.[17]

Like the women who draped the banner emblazoned with “Be honest” over the railings in response to Asquith’s claims, Colman Smith’s postcard cuts to the chase. Long-term frustration over male publishers and mentors who had made repeated promises but had not followed through had made her circumspect and weary of the empty assurances of men. Drawing on the adage “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” the cartoon urges women not to give in to the angry squawking of the political “birds” who mock the woman with their false promises but, instead, push forward with the Conciliation Bill. The woman’s erect posture is noticeable as she firmly holds onto her bird—this one with a Conciliation Bill tag— and keeps it safely away from the Asquith and Lloyd George birds that rest on an incongruous ivy tree, likely chosen because the plant’s malignant berries symbolized the politicians’ destructive promises. The cartoon enacts the artist Louisa Jopling Rowe’s statement that the value of pictorial art in political propaganda is “to hold up to ridicule the Members of Parliament who think that women, having no sense of humour, cannot register votes.”[18] In her suffrage cartoons, Colman Smith clearly demonstrates her often biting humor, and, as Marian Sawyer notes of the Suffrage Atelier as a whole, she engaged in “what feminist cartoonists have done ever since—wresting control so that the butt of the joke is no longer the woman, but rather the self-interested arguments used to keep women in their place.”[19] For a variety of reasons, the women’s suffrage movement did not follow the cartoon’s advice, and between 1910 and 1912 three Conciliation Bills, which would have extended the right to vote to more than a million property-owning women in Great Britain, were promised but eventually dropped. Colman Smith’s cartoon showcases the clean, unornamented style that was to become the hallmark of her suffrage posters and, as I discuss below, more broadly heralds a shift in her illustrative style. It is also a reflection of her tarot designs, as that project likewise required her to convey messages symbolically in a compressed amount of space.

Figure 2: P. S., “What May Happen,” The Suffrage Atelier. Image courtesy of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics

Another signed postcard also explicitly deals with political wrangling between women’s suffrage supporters and Asquith and Lloyd George.[20] Entitled “What May Happen,” [Figure 2] it depicts a woman in profile turning away a boy who is presenting her with a pie emblazoned “Servants Tax” and a basket labelled L-George and Co. The caption reads, “Take it away, my boy! I’ve not been consulted in the making of this pie & as it’s a present I must pay for, I won’t accept it!” The postcard refers to Lloyd George’s controversial 1909 budget, which proposed a 20 percent tax on the wealthy but also imposed levies on servants’ licenses and dogs. With its similar typeface, copious use of white space, and black shading in the left corner for emphasis, it closely resembles Colman Smith’s “A Bird in the Hand” postcard.[21]

Figure 3: Unsigned. “The Closed Door,” The Suffrage Atelier Image courtesy of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics

Colman Smith’s suffrage posters and postcards fall into three main categories: those that support women’s suffrage broadly, often with a political bent; those focused on the negative economic impact the inability to vote had on women; and those that detail gender disparities between women and men. Although not explicitly referencing women’s suffrage, “The Closed Door,” [Figure 3] an undated, anonymous Suffrage Atelier postcard that I believe is Colman Smith’s work, responded to the proposed 1911 National Insurance Act that based health insurance for all on contributions from employers. It depicts female servants being turned away from a hospital by a male doctor because they are not sick enough to be admitted, and by a woman employer because she cannot afford to pay the new tax. A male figure with a Robin Hood style hat and outfit, but wearing bat wings and brandishing an upturned sword, bars their way. The male figure’s idiosyncratic wings closely resemble Colman Smith’s wings for both the Devil tarot card and her caricature of  her friend Bram Stoker, whom she affectionately referred to as “Brammy Joker.”  

The injustice of gender disparities is the last major category of Colman Smith’s suffrage postcards. “To the Girls’ Christmas Tree,” which is reminiscent of the style of “A Bird in the Hand,” focuses on how gender disparities begin in childhood, creating a culture of second-class citizens. It depicts older, wealthy men blocking young girls from enjoying a beautifully bedecked Christmas tree. The text at the bottom admonishes the girls—several of whom are visibly wiping away tears—that “We have let you see this nice tree, so go home quietly the boys may want all the presents but perhaps there may be something left for you.” The long string of unpunctuated text, which appears to be in the same typeface as “A Bird in the Hand,” emphasizes that the girls need to behave and, if they are lucky, they might be rewarded with some of the boys’ presents; the boys, the cartoon sardonically implies, will get them regardless of whether their actions merit rewards.

Figure 4: “Polling Station,” Suffrage Atelier, 1913 Image courtesy of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics

The last two suffrage cartoons I discuss are probably the most familiar, even if they are not generally associated with Colman Smith. Created in 1913, they are both anonymously credited to the Suffrage Atelier and highlight the vast gulf between the men who were allowed to vote and the high-achieving, dedicated women who were not. Unlike most of Colman Smith’s extant suffrage postcards, these experimented with spot color. The first, “What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote,” consists of a relatively simple ten-panel design.[22] The top five panels illustrate various professions held by women, including mayor, nurse, mother, doctor or teacher, and factory worker. These are contrasted with the bottom five panels that display “What a Man may have been & yet not lose the Vote.” These include a convict, a lunatic, a proprietor of white slaves, a man unfit for service, and a drunkard. Similar to her other postcards from 1913, this does not rely heavily on text, like ‘A Bird in the Hand” or “The Girls’ Christmas Tree,” to convey its meaning, but instead works through the sharp, if humorous, juxtaposition of the accomplished women and the broken or exploitative men. The second color cartoon, “Polling Station,” [Figure 4] elaborates on the previous work.[23] Dispensing with the traditional cartoon panels, this postcard depicts a line of men from all walks of life entering a polling station to cast their ballots, while a procession of accomplished women that includes artists, writers, and college professors are prevented from doing the same by a beadle with an upraised palm. Interestingly, the women appear to ignore him. This work features even less text than “What a Woman may be,” but still effectively transmits its message that women are intelligent, competent, and, most importantly, deserving of the vote.

In addition to creating these cartoons and posters, Colman Smith was also involved in other suffrage activities. Her name was included on a published Roll of Honor of women arrested for participating in suffrage protests and embroidered on a sash with other women who had spent at least one night in Royal Holloway prison.[24] However, there is no other documentation about this arrest, nor any record of whether Colman Smith was arrested multiple times. In addition, a series of 1911 letters between Colman Smith and Philippa Strachey, the secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, demonstrates her commitment to helping working-class women participate in suffrage activities.[25] Colman Smith, who was the secretary of the Plumstead branch of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, was attempting to get travel expenses for twelve working-class women who attended a June 2, 1911 Queen’s Hall suffrage meeting.[26] She writes that initially a local suffrage leader had assured them that their bus and train fares would be covered; however, at the door of the meeting they were informed that their travel expenses would not be reimbursed, and they would have to appeal to Strachey in writing. When no response was received to Colman Smith’s first two letters (only the second of which has been preserved), a “very indignant” Mrs. Kidd, one of the women who had attended the meeting and on whose behalf Colman Smith had written, followed up on July 8. The letter states, “Am I to understand that the ladies I came in contact with on that night were all humbugs and would … by any back door to get out of paying their debts?” She concludes that “if there is no reply to this letter by Thursday,” she will contact the newspapers.[27] Interestingly, despite Mrs. Kidd’s name and signature, the handwriting is very obviously Colman Smith’s, just in a somewhat larger and sloppier variant than her first letter. It is impossible to know whether the real Mrs. Kidd, who was listed as one of the attendees Colman Smith brought with her to the Queen’s Hall meeting, dictated the letter or if it was a combined effort. However, its outrage tinged with humor mirrors other letters by Colman Smith. According to carbon copies of internal correspondence included in the file, the women did eventually receive their travel expenses.[28] 

While the record of Colman Smith’s involvement with the suffrage movement remains incomplete, it provides valuable insight into cross-class cooperation between women both within and beyond the Suffrage Atelier. Moreover, it highlights Colman Smith’s commitment to helping working-class women and to combatting injustice, even if it came from within a suffrage organization.

Taken as a whole, the Smith-Waite tarot deck reflects Colman Smith’s involvement in the suffrage movement in 1909. The cards’ bright colors evoke the elaborate costumes of the suffrage processionals that she witnessed and likely took part in.[29] The relatively flat figures outlined in black that adorn the tarot deck also bear similarities to poster designs Colman Smith produced as part of her work for the Suffrage Atelier. They both centrally feature women in a range of traditional and non-traditional roles, and many of the tarot designs highlight androgynous or female-presenting figures in unexpected ways, such as the Magician, the Knight of Swords, the Knight of Wands, the King of Pentacles, and the Chariot. Furthermore, both works show the influence of Colman Smith’s training as an illustrative artist, which began at the Pratt Institute, and her “music pictures,” which she began working on in 1903. These later works, which are the representations of visions she experienced while listening to orchestral music, centrally feature women and transport viewers into a variety of imaginative, often ethereal and sometimes dystopian, landscapes. Because Colman Smith discussed these paintings as almost out-of-body experiences, critics have rarely focused on patterns of representation in them.[30] This is due in part to Colman Smith’s assertion that her “music pictures” were “thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound.”[31] Whether these musical visions were the manifestation of her conscious or unconscious mind, or some combination thereof, they—like her images for the Smith-Waite tarot deck—do contain their own symbolic lexicon and I believe are strongly influenced by her involvement with the suffrage movement. In this way, Colman Smith’s various creative projects during this 1908-9 period, which, if discussed at all, are treated separately, are really part of her growing awareness of and interest in the power and potential of women to affect change, be it politically, personally, or spiritually. And regardless of whether Eliot was aware of this suffrage influence on the 1909 tarot deck—or even if Colman Smith was the person responsible for the designs—when deciding to include references to key cards in his 1922 epic, this new layer of meaning helps provide yet another example that even amidst the death and decay of the waste land there is the potential for rebirth and change.  


Elizabeth Foley O’Connor is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Gender Studies Program at Washington College, a liberal arts college on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she teaches classes in modernism, twentieth century British literature, postcolonial literature, journalism, and composition. Her literary biography, Pamela Colman Smith: Artist, Feminist & Mystic, was published in 2021 by Clemson University Press/ Liverpool University Press. She was a co-author of the 2018 Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story. She has published essays on Colman Smith, James Joyce, Kate O’Brien, Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, and fin de siecle little magazines.


References

  1. This article was drawn from Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, Pamela Colman Smith: Feminist, Artist & Mystic. (Clemson, S.C.: Clemson University Press, 2021).
  2. Laurence Houseman, The Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, stencils by Alice B. Woodward, Pamela Colman Smith, and Ada P. Ridley, ed. Lenora Tyson (Lambeth/Southwark Women’s Social and Political Union, 1911); see also Katharine Cockin, “Pamela Colman Smith, Anansi, and the Child: from The Green Sheaf (1903) to the Anti-Suffrage Alphabet (1912),” in Literary and Cultural Alternatives to Modernism, ed. Kostas Boyiopoulos, Anthony Patterson, and Mark Sandy (New York: Routledge, 2019), 71–84.
  3. Katharine Cockin, Edith Craig and the Theatres of Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 86.
  4. Tara Morton, “Changing Spaces: Art, Politics, and Identity in the Home Studios of the Suffrage Atelier,” Women’s History Review 21, no. 4 (2012): 623–37; and Miranda Garrett and Zöe Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics, and Enterprise (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 66, 71–72.
  5. Garrett and Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts, 67.
  6. See Garrett and Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts, 78.
  7. Morton, “Changing Spaces,” 623–37.
  8. See Garrett and Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts, 72.
  9. Morton, “Changing Spaces,” 626.
  10. Tickner, Spectacle of Women, 69, 94, 117.
  11. Morton, “Changing Spaces,” 627.
  12. Garrett and Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts, 79.
  13. This one has a small P.S. in the left corner.
  14. See Kaplan et al., Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, 77.
  15. E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement, 1905–1910 (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1991), 239–40; see also Tickner, Spectacle of Women, 35.
  16. Pankhurst, The Suffragette, 345–46.
  17. Ibid., 346. 
  18. Qtd. in Tickner, Spectacle of Women, 34.
  19. Marian Sawyer, “Cartoons for the Cause: Cartooning for Equality in Australia,” Ejournalist-Australian Media Traditions Conference 2001, 6. https://ejournalist.com.au/public_html/v1n2/SAWER.pdf.
  20. The black-and-white version of this has a clearly visible S. and lines that appear to be forming the bowl of a P. in the bottom righthand corner of the frame, but these have been damaged, likely in the printing process. A spot-color version of the same cartoon does not include any initials.
  21. The label on the basket appears to be hand-lettered, and the G in George is very similar to the G in the “Vote for Women Bogies” and the “Comfortable Women” discussed below.
  22. See Tickner, Spectacle of Women, 22, where it is reproduced as part of a sheet of postcards produced by the Suffrage Atelier in 1913.
  23. See Tickner, Spectacle of Women, 22, where it is reproduced as part of a sheet of postcards produced by the Suffrage Atelier in 1913.
  24. “Roll of Honor of Suffragette Prisoners, 1905–1914,” London School of Economics, Women’s Suffrage Library, ref. no. 7LAC/2, alt. ref. no. 7/XXX4/2, Box FL637.
  25. P. Smith to Philippa Strachey, June 7, 1911, London School of Economics, Women’s Library, ref. no. 9/09/144, microform TWL 6.1.
  26. The letters reference Colman Smith staying with a Mrs. Smith who was an aunt. I have not been able to uncover any information on who this individual might have been and how she might have been related to Colman Smith’s father, Charles Edward Smith. Colman Smith lived at 84 York Mansions, Battersea Park, London SW from at least April 1907 to November 1909, based on postmarks on her letters. I have not uncovered any other indication of where Colman Smith was living in 1911. The handwriting of the letters is identical to that of Colman Smith.
  27.  P. Smith to Strachey, June 7, 1911, microform TWL 6.1.
  28.  P. Smith to Strachey, June 7, 1911, microform TWL 6.1.
  29.  Boyd Parsons, “Influences and Expression,” 350, 367.
  30.  See Pyne, Modernism and the Feminine Voice, 50–51; see also Melinda Boyd Parsons, “Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Stieglitz: Modernism at 291,” History of Photography 20, no. 4 (1996), 285-292.
  31.  “Pictures in Music,” The Strand Magazine, July 1908, 636.

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