Interview with Clive Barrett

by Alex B. Crowther

As an artist who was your greatest influence?

It would be difficult to chose any single influence. I have never had a personal style of drawing or painting, (or living). I adopt a style appropriate to circumstance, the subject or commission, so any artistic influence present would depend upon the style I was currently using.

Generally, however, I favour a realistic approach and greatly admire the works of Leonardo da Vinci, the Pre-Raphaelites - Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt etc. - and illustrative artists such as Maxfield Parish. I have learned much from children's book illustrators such as Charles and William Heath Robinson, William Pogany and Edmund Dulac.

Also, whenever appropriate, I try to follow Roger Dean's assertion that technique should be invisible to the viewer and not allowed to detract from the message.

Do you read the cards yourself?

Yes, but much less often that I once did.

Your deck "The Ancient Egyptian Tarot" is a reprint, are there any updates to this version as opposed to the original?

There are no differences, either in the illustrations of the cards or the text of the book - apart from the cover and the packaging. But I have noticed that in some packs the printing of the blue ink is slightly heavier than previously, which has the effect of making the image a little sharper.

This deck has been celebrated as having some of the most accurate artwork depicting Egyptian lifestyle over any other deck created. What research went into the creation of this deck?

When dealing with myths and legends I prefer historical realism to pure fantasy. Even in areas where there is no real documentable source for a subject, such as say, a unicorn, it is possible to present an image which although wholly imagined is historically valid and has its roots firmly in the past. (Even if it is only in the minds of the past.) Sometimes my illustrations and sculptures are described as 'fantasy art', I prefer the term mythographic, hence the name of my web site.

Regarding the historical accuracy of the AET illustrations, living several millennia on we can only have an idealised impression of the truth, but the illustrations are as honest and accurate as I could manage. Our knowledge of ancient Egypt is incomplete and rests upon the work and interpretations of archaeologists, and so is open to the influence of new discoveries and reinterpretation.

As with any book the research involved consulting authoritative texts, but the illustrations required research of another sort. Visits were made to view specific historical artefacts. When a museum was prohibitively distant, museum catalogues or other illustrated sources were consulted.

I did not, as some have asked, visit any of the historic sites of Egypt. Having experience in archaeology in Britain, I am aware of how destructive tourism is in relation to historical sites. This is in no way wilful destruction. Feet wear away floors and carvings are smoothed by caressing hands. The tombs of Tutankhamen and others have had to close, as the volume of water vapour given off by visitors is such that the wall paintings, which have survived for thousands of years, are becoming destabilised and are in danger of being lost.

However, despite my quest for historical accuracy, this was relaxed, to an extent, in regard to the court cards. This was done in order to emphasise the individual nature of these cards.

In the AET the three main sections of the tarot - major cards, court cards and numbered cards - correspond to directly to the three levels of Egyptian existence. The major arcana is the realm of the gods, minor arcana the home of the people of ancient Egypt, the court cards - the Phaeronic family - god kings and queens, considered to be the children of the gods, they dwelled with the gods after death.

The court cards are not necessarily located in Egypt and some, while treated naturally, could not appear in nature. Perspective is distorted or the figure placed in an impossible position or location - with equally unlikely animals. This suggests the intermediate world of the court cards which, depicting the semi-divine rulers of Ancient Egypt, lies between those of the Gods and Goddesses of the major arcana and the mortals of the minor arcana.

That aside it was essential the animals and birds living in Egypt in ancient times should be included when ever appropriate. Animals and birds include a jackal, Nile crocodile, Egyptian goose and sacred ibis.

There seems to be parallells to the Rider Waite and Thoth decks. Would you agree that the Ancient Egyptian Tarot has elements of both these systems?

There are various ways to approach the creation of a new tarot deck.

These may be divided into two groups - those based on the traditions which have been built up through the years and those which do not. Whilst there are merits on both sides, being interested in the history of the tarot, I chose the traditional route. Then I had to decide which tradition to follow. That of the Golden Dawn and it's successors is perhaps the most complete and logically sound, so that is the one I chose.

The main tarot sources, (as opposed to Egyptian,) were the decks designed by members of the Golden Dawn, and the books written by them, especially Crowley and Waite. The AET Fool intentionally pays homage to the design by Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who painted the Rider-Waite/Waite-Smith deck. Also the final Priestess illustration is based upon a photograph of Leila Waddell, who was Aleister Crowley's magical assistant in 1910.

What was your purpose in creating this deck and how did the idea come about to you?

I was discussing the contract for the Norse Tarot with my editor, and I remarked that it was a pity that there was no accessible Egyptian deck available. His response was "Well, go ahead and do one!"

It was clear from the outset that it must be radically different from existing Egyptian decks, which were simple line drawings based loosely on Egyptian wall paintings, usually derived from the Falconnier deck. It had to show Egypt as it had been not how it was depicted in the stylised form of Egyptian art.

How long did it take for you to create this deck from conceptualisation to actualisation?

Work was started 1988, around the same time as the Norse Tarot was begun, but little progress was made until the NT was completed. The painting of the cards covered period of months from 1992 to 1994, work slowly progressed on the deck. It was finally completed in February 1994.

The painting of each card of the AET took on average 40 hours to complete, from roughs to finished artwork. Running in parallel for part of the time was work for the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses book (in which some earlier visions of the cards appeared).

The dead line for completion of the AET was passed several times, and I am grateful to my publisher for their understanding and tolerance.

Which card was the more difficult for you to depict the true meaning of and why?

Usually the image for a card suggested itself fully formed and had simply to be transferred to paper. However, on the odd occasion in which no obvious idea for the design of a particular card was immediately forthcoming the card would be passed over in favour of another.

The Ten of Disks was intentionally left until last as it was desirable to finish on a positive card.

Which card is your favourite and why?

There are some which work better than others, either as illustrations or in relation to their content. As to my favourite card, perhaps the Fool. One day I would like to repaint this card using oils, and I have already begun a small sculpture of the Fool to be cast in metal.

How does this deck differ from most "modern" decks that are currently available?

Unfortunately I am not familiar with many of the latest decks, but of these I know, I prefer those designed and painted by a single individual. It is rare for two people to have the same background understanding of the tarot, and in a number of contemporary decks this unbalance shows. It is notable that both Pamela Colman Smith and Lady Frieda Harris were both members of the Golden Dawn.

You decided to use detailed artwork in the minors rather than just having the numbers of the items for each suit (e.g. 4 swords on the 4 of swords), how did you come to decide this method was more practical?

With any form of art, the more the artist puts into an illustration, the more the viewer will get out of it. In a reading this applies, in different ways, to both the reader and the subject. I felt that I would be short changing people if I did not give a meaningful illustration on every card.

I tried to give the deck "depth". Of meaning and of symbolism. The more the cards contain the greater will be their effect upon the mind of the user, both consciously and unconsciously. Hopefully triggering thoughts and encouraging the mind to make connections which otherwise may not be made.

Although I greatly admire the Crowley and Waite-Smith decks, I set out to design a deck in which each card was different to those which had gone before (including the Norse Tarot). It would have been easy to have simply copied or adapted the ideas in other decks, but I wanted the AET to cover new ground.

Also, if used by a reader with experience of a deck such as the Waite-Smith, the two decks could be compared in the minds eye, hopefully to give greater depth of meaning to the interpretation. This meant, especially for the minor cards, that I had to reinterpret the meanings into a new and original images. Occasionally it was unavoidable that some detail found in the source would the most appropriate to use in the AET.

As an archaeologist what is your theory regarding the origins of the Tarot?

For some years I have been working of a history of the tarot. It follows that outlined in the AET book, (there are some minor changes), but goes into greater detail.

When considering the origin of the tarot, a distinction must be made between the tarot and the ideas behind the tarot. The ideas have a much longer history than the cards and go back to Egyptian times and beyond. However, the tarot as a deck of cards is considerably younger.

My current research suggest a likely individual as the decks original creator. There is an abundance circumstantial evidence to support this theory, but I still have much of work to do before I will be confident enough publish my findings.

Can you explain briefly your theory of the structure of the pyramids? One theory proposes that the floor represents the 4 elements (each corner being a point for each element earth, air, fire and water) and the peak of the pyramid is the representation of the fifth element.

While the ancient Egyptians had beliefs and associations regarding fire, earth, water and air, they did not group them together as is done today. Indeed the fifth element - spirit - they subdivided into a number of distinct parts, the Ka, Ba and Akh etc. So it is unlikely that they saw the pyramid in this way.

The pyramid structure is descended from predinastic flat-topped mastaba tombs. These were developed over time, until, in the third dynasty, Imhotep designed the first step-pyramid for King Djosr. The first 'true' pyramids were built in the forth dynasty.

The symbolism of the pyramid had two main elements. Firstly it represented the primal hill upon which Ra climbed out from the waters of Nun. Secondly it represented the rays of the sun falling upon the earth, providing sustenance for the Ba of the king within. (Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, page 161)

Also the pyramid was an earthly representation of the heavens, and was a device, almost a machine, for facilitating the dead kings ascendance to his celestial afterlife in the realm of the gods.

Who do you see as the greatest influence (either past or present) in the Tarot community and why?

The partnership of Arthur E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Quite apart from the excellence of its design, structure and symbolism, the deck they produced together has sold more copies and has introduced more people to the Tarot than any other. Indeed, for many years it was the only deck which could be early obtained. No other deck has had a comparable influence.

The kabalah is often associated with Tarot and there is a lot of confusion as to how these two systems came together. What is your theory on this?

Some time before the mid 1850's, the French occultist, Eliphas Levi noticed the the tarot has 22 major cards and started to search for links between them and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which lies at the heart of the kabalah. Other French occultists developed his theories, which were later taken up in Victorian England by the founders of the Golden Dawn. It was they who seized upon the kabalistic work - the Sephir Yetzirah - to expand upon the connection.

Each member of the Golden Dawn was required to create a tarot deck as part of their study of magic. Together they developed an extensive system of correspondences or cross-references of symbols, encompassing the whole of magic, alchemy and religion.

The Waite-Smith, Case and Crowley deck were all born from this foundation and so were influenced directly by the Golden Dawn's interpretation of the kabalah. Incidentally, kabalah purists dismiss the link with the tarot as unfounded, for them the two systems are unrelated and unconnected.

If you could meet a person from Ancient Egypt who would it be and why?

Rather than meet an individual from ancient Egypt, I would like to listen in on a conversation in Alexandria. To be with Plato when he was told about the destruction of Atlantis. It would be interesting to know whether, as some have said, the story was believed to be factual or considered to be purely allegorical.

A lot of people believe that the use of Egyptian type decks is moot if you are not Egyptian or have not studied their culture intensely. What are your thoughts about this?

I have not heard of this before, but many use decks such the Marseille or the Waite-Smith with little or no knowledge of mediaeval Europe. I don't think this is a problem.

The book that accompanies the deck was "heavily edited", do you believe that more can be learnt from this deck outside of that which is represented in your book? How would that best be achieved in your opinion?

Without the complete guide to the AET, the key to learning more is to study the cards themselves. By questioning the detail, everything (almost) is there for a reason, answers may be found in books on mythology and magic. The Book of Thoth explains much of the symbolism, but demands a lot of work from the reader.

You say you continue to make discoveries about the deck which you were not aware of during its creation. Can you elaborate further on this?

This has happened many times, usually intentionally placed symbolism is found to have other shades of meaning. For example, the Five of Swords shows a woman loosely holding a sword while the man, possibly her husband stands by the window leaning on the wall for support. The woman rests against a chest draped with a black cloth, on the chest is an apple.

This apple was originally intended to suggest the story of the Garden of Eden, with the associated ideas of woman's control over man. But the apple is whole, no bite has been taken from it and it's colour is gold.

When I considered this later I realised that the apple also suggested a another myth. According to the ancient Greeks the goddess Eris (goddess of Strife, which links the card to the Five of Wands), who had not been invited to a wedding, took revenge and thereby, caused trouble for Paris and directly brought about the Trojan War (the Five of Wands again). She did this by throwing an apple, baring the inscription "For the fairest" into the midst of the wedding guests. Three goddesses claimed the apple and Paris was given the task of judging which of the three was the fairest.

This myth adds a further dimension to the interpretation of the card.

© Alex B. Crowther

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