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
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
of the book - apart from the cover and the packaging. But I have noticed
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
depicting Egyptian lifestyle over any other deck created. What research
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
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
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
illustrations are as honest and accurate as I could manage. Our knowledge
ancient Egypt is incomplete and rests upon the work and interpretations of
archaeologists, and so is open to the influence of new discoveries and
As with any book the research involved consulting authoritative texts, but
illustrations required research of another sort. Visits were made to view
specific historical artefacts. When a museum was prohibitively distant,
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
water vapour given off by visitors is such that the wall paintings, which
survived for thousands of years, are becoming destabilised and are in
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
individual nature of these cards.
In the AET the three main sections of the tarot - major cards, court cards
numbered cards - correspond to directly to the three levels of Egyptian
existence. The major arcana is the realm of the gods, minor arcana the
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
the gods after death.
The court cards are not necessarily located in Egypt and some, while
naturally, could not appear in nature. Perspective is distorted or the
placed in an impossible position or location - with equally unlikely
This suggests the intermediate world of the court cards which, depicting
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
times should be included when ever appropriate. Animals and birds include
jackal, Nile crocodile, Egyptian goose and sacred ibis.
There seems to be parallells to the Rider Waite and Thoth decks. Would
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
merits on both sides, being interested in the history of the tarot, I
the traditional route. Then I had to decide which tradition to follow.
the Golden Dawn and it's successors is perhaps the most complete and
sound, so that is the one I chose.
The main tarot sources, (as opposed to Egyptian,) were the decks designed
members of the Golden Dawn, and the books written by them, especially
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.
the final Priestess illustration is based upon a photograph of Leila
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
Egyptian decks, which were simple line drawings based loosely on Egyptian
paintings, usually derived from the Falconnier deck. It had to show Egypt
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
Work was started 1988, around the same time as the Norse Tarot was begun,
little progress was made until the NT was completed. The painting of the
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
work for the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses book (in which some earlier
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
Usually the image for a card suggested itself fully formed and had simply
be transferred to paper. However, on the odd occasion in which no obvious
for the design of a particular card was immediately forthcoming the card
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
relation to their content. As to my favourite card, perhaps the Fool. One
I would like to repaint this card using oils, and I have already begun a
sculpture of the Fool to be cast in metal.
How does this deck differ from most "modern" decks that are currently
Unfortunately I am not familiar with many of the latest decks, but of
know, I prefer those designed and painted by a single individual. It is
for two people to have the same background understanding of the tarot, and
a number of contemporary decks this unbalance shows. It is notable that
Pamela Colman Smith and Lady Frieda Harris were both members of the Golden
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
the viewer will get out of it. In a reading this applies, in different
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
cards contain the greater will be their effect upon the mind of the user,
consciously and unconsciously. Hopefully triggering thoughts and
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
(including the Norse Tarot). It would have been easy to have simply copied
adapted the ideas in other decks, but I wanted the AET to cover new
Also, if used by a reader with experience of a deck such as the
the two decks could be compared in the minds eye, hopefully to give
depth of meaning to the interpretation. This meant, especially for the
cards, that I had to reinterpret the meanings into a new and original
Occasionally it was unavoidable that some detail found in the source would
most appropriate to use in the AET.
As an archaeologist what is your theory regarding the origins of the
For some years I have been working of a history of the tarot. It follows
outlined in the AET book, (there are some minor changes), but goes into
When considering the origin of the tarot, a distinction must be made
the tarot and the ideas behind the tarot. The ideas have a much longer
than the cards and go back to Egyptian times and beyond. However, the
a deck of cards is considerably younger.
My current research suggest a likely individual as the decks original
There is an abundance circumstantial evidence to support this theory, but
still have much of work to do before I will be confident enough publish my
Can you explain briefly your theory of the structure of the pyramids?
theory proposes that the floor represents the 4 elements (each corner
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
parts, the Ka, Ba and Akh etc. So it is unlikely that they saw the pyramid
The pyramid structure is descended from predinastic flat-topped mastaba
These were developed over time, until, in the third dynasty, Imhotep
the first step-pyramid for King Djosr. The first 'true' pyramids were
the forth dynasty.
The symbolism of the pyramid had two main elements. Firstly it represented
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
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
celestial afterlife in the realm of the gods.
Who do you see as the greatest influence (either past or present) in
Tarot community and why?
The partnership of Arthur E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Quite apart
the excellence of its design, structure and symbolism, the deck they
produced together has sold more copies and has introduced more people to
Tarot than any other. Indeed, for many years it was the only deck which
be early obtained. No other deck has had a comparable influence.
The kabalah is often associated with Tarot and there is a lot of
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
the the tarot has 22 major cards and started to search for links between
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
who seized upon the kabalistic work - the Sephir Yetzirah - to expand upon
Each member of the Golden Dawn was required to create a tarot deck as part
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
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
on a conversation in Alexandria. To be with Plato when he was told about
destruction of Atlantis. It would be interesting to know whether, as some
said, the story was believed to be factual or considered to be purely
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
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
that more can be learnt from this deck outside of that which is
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
the cards themselves. By questioning the detail, everything (almost) is
for a reason, answers may be found in books on mythology and magic. The
of Thoth explains much of the symbolism, but demands a lot of work from
You say you continue to make discoveries about the deck which you
not aware of during its creation. Can you elaborate further on this?
This has happened many times, usually intentionally placed symbolism is
to have other shades of meaning. For example, the Five of Swords shows a
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
with a black cloth, on the chest is an apple.
This apple was originally intended to suggest the story of the Garden of
with the associated ideas of woman's control over man. But the apple is
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
to a wedding, took revenge and thereby, caused trouble for Paris and
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
the wedding guests. Three goddesses claimed the apple and Paris was given
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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