The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot

The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot tells the history of the deck best known as the Rider-Waite Tarot. It's also the story of the world of Tarot in the twentieth century, and the world of Tarot publishing. Now available from the Association of Tarot Studies.

By K. Frank Jensen · Book · Published by Assocation for Tarot Studies

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

"Tarot did not come out of nothing, and its history is important for a full understanding of what it is." K. Frank Jensen

I would like to thank Jean-Michel David and the Association For Tarot Studies for making this work available to the public, and K. Frank Jensen for being willing to share his research. The quality of work here is that which all should strive for, one that will bring about some new thoughts on this deck.

The tone of the book is set with the cover, which shows a picture of a smiling, exotic looking Pixie Smith and a very contemplative A. E. Waite. The lady who was born with mystical powers, and the man who strived to attain them all of his life.

The book is broken down into four sections: Part One: Artist and Author (bio's of A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith); Part Two: Waite's Golden Dawn; Part Three: the Waite-Smith Tarot Deck; and Part Four: Catalog (a listing of remakes/recolorings of the Waite-Smith Tarot).

Before one can understand the deck, one must understand the people. To this end, Jensen started in absolutely the right place. Jensen gives thanks to R. A. Gilbert as a resource for information on Waite, and art historian Dr. Melinda Boyd Parsons for what information there was on Colman Smith.

One of the tidbits in the bio on Waite is that the name "Rider", which was the name of the company that first published this deck, did not appear on the deck until it was published by U. S. Games Systems, Inc. Another thing that I found strange was that Waite did not take care of his archived material (he was a prolific writer), so that a great deal was lost due to neglect. His marriage to the sister of the woman that he really cared for (who was already engaged to be married to a much older man) gives pause for thought, but it seems to have worked out well, even though she showed no interest in his work.

The facts concerning Pamela Colman Smith are sketchy. She had a great deal of training as an artist, wrote plays, and designed stage settings for them. Economically, she never achieved success as an artist. She was known as a gifted story teller, and would amuse her friends with stories of Jamaican tales of Annuncy, a character originating in West African lore. She also had the ability to listen to music and paint images from it.

Part Two, Waite's Golden Dawn, carries the story of Waite's involvement with the organization, which was very different from Colman Smiths. Pixie was drawn to the ritual, but not to the practicing magic. This section is quite good, delineating the birth and growth of the Golden Dawn, whose organizational life was to last for a mere twenty years. Jensen notes that while Waite was rather specific in his "guidance" on the Major Arcana, the illustrations on the Minor Arcana was very much left up to Colman Smith. A very interesting side note here is that shortly before Colman Smith was commissioned to work on the deck, the British Museum received a set of photographs of the so-called Sola-Busca Tarot from the Sola family. This is where part of her inspiration came for the Minor Arcana.

Part Three, the Waite-Smith deck, concentrates on the printing techniques available for publishing decks. Jensen does a magnificent job of bringing this to life - which is important, because I don't think this information would be at the fingertips of someone who is not a researcher. It says a lot about the series of four versions of the Waite-Smith deck (which Jensen refers to as Pam A-D), and the role of copyists (some of which were true to Colman Smith's intent, and some of which were not). Jenson discusses the details of the cards, the presentation of the backs (debating whether the Roses and Lilies pattern is the oldest), and the boxes that they were sold in. There are questions here left unanswered - food for thought, and for further study. Copyright issues manage to find their way here also - and they are a bit more complicated than one might think. Then there are the publishers!

Part Four covers Waite-Smith remakes/recolrings. The publication of one deck, in the U.S. by the de Laurence Company, was absolutely brazen: Waite's "The Pictorial Key To The Tarot" became "The Illustrated Key To The Tarot", showing de Laurence as the author. the illustrations were the line art of Pamela Colman Smith, although she was not credited. Then there was the B.O.T.A. deck, the University Books deck, the Vending Machine Tarot, and the Hoi Polloi Tarot, amongst others. Limited art editions included the AMA-kort editions. Recolorings included the Albano-Waite Tarot, the Universal Waite, the Golden Rider, and the Illuminated Rider. There is also a listing of mass market decks that include many familiar names.

Throughout the book are black and white photo's, as well as reproductions of cards and advertisements. There are two sections of glossy pages showing colored scans of the cards. There is an extensive bibliography, and A.E. Waite's writing about the Waite-Smith deck in "Shadows of Life and Thought" (London, 1938, unabridged).

This is the story of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but it is also the story of the world of Tarot, and the world of Tarot publishing. Little nuggets pop up everywhere that give pause for thought - something you have never heard before, or something that you thought was one way was actually much more complicated. The cast of characters is well known, from the players of Waite and Colman Smith's time to the present time. Here, however, we see many of them in a new, and sometimes not too flattering light.

Let the fun begin!

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer.

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