Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set

2009 is the 100th year anniversary of the first publication of the famous esoteric tarot deck conceived of by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by the artist Pamela Colman Smith. The deck was ready for the Christmas sales in 1909 and has ever since been the most popular deck of its kind, with more copies sold than all other esoteric tarot decks together during the 20th century.

To mark this anniversary various initiatives have been taken during the year: articles were written, tarot group meetings brought the Waite-Smith tarot high on the agenda, a mail art project was initiated.... US Games Systems Inc. (USGS), who since the 1970's earned a fortune on producing and selling the Waite-Smith tarot under the name `Rider Waite', has joined the acclaim by issuing a book/deck set named: "Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set". Included in the set is a reprint called `The Smith-Waite Centennial Edition Deck'. So now we have four names for the same deck: `Waite-Smith', `Rider Waite', `Rider-Waite Smith' and now `Smith-Waite' to complete the confusion. The last three names are all constructions made after 1972 when Stuart R. Kaplan of USGS obtained the rights to reissue the pack. Even if Rider was the first publisher, his name was never connected with the deck nor used in promotion or any early articles and books. Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set - Open

The book/deck set comes in a heavy box, which opens in the middle like a book revealing two inner compartments, which again can be opened by lifting each of their lids. In the left compartment we have the books plus postcards and prints. Under the right lid we find the deck (which has no box of its own but a light blue drawstring bag made of some synthetic material, which doesn't at all fit in with the otherwise agreeable impression of the set). One book is Waite's "The Pictorial Key to the Tarot" except that the illustrations are not included (!) Mr. Kaplan is apparently of the opinion, that the enclosed cards are sufficient. The book is obviously a photographic reprint based upon either the 1910 or the 1922 edition; which one, Mr. Kaplan doesn't find it relevant to state. The missing pages with illustrations have forced a renumbering of the text pages, which makes this edition impossible to be used as a reference. Why Waite’s ‘The Key’ which accompanied the original edition was not used instead is a riddle to me.

Further, in the same compartment, we find six postcards depicting a variety of Smith's illustrations plus four slightly larger prints, one of them rendering a well-known photograph of Pamela Colman Smith. Furthermore a folder describing three card spreads. The last item in this compartment is what makes the entire set interesting: a small 101 page pocket size book authored by Stuart R. Kaplan himself and with the impressive title: `The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith - Artist of the Rider Waite (!) Tarot Deck'. In this book we find a wealth of colour illustrations of Pamela Colman Smith's art, most of them from Mr. Kaplan's own collection but also pieces from other sources. Which ones come from where is not obvious. The text, which, covers only 20-25 pages of the book's total 101 pages is written in short sentences and it appears more like a listing of Colman Smith's works and enterprises. This book is however, worth it all for the nicely printed 77 colour and 48 b&w illustrations. I can't refrain from thinking, how much better the energy of producing this entire set would have been used, if instead a large size art book accompanied by text from a competent art historian had been published. But anyway, the book is nicely produced with clear colour illustrations and, as far as I know the only book that illustrates Smith's art so profusely.

Finally I come to the box's right compartment holding the "Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition Deck'. Back in 2002 Stuart R. Kaplan, shortly before the International Tarot Society's congress, acquired at an eBay auction the first Waite-Smith Tarot found with the so-called `roses and lilies'- back pattern. The decks existence had been known for some time, but so far no copies had been unearthed. Kaplan presented the deck at the ITS-congress and held out the prospect of publishing a facsimile of the deck under the name of `Waite-Smith', a name he so far had not used for any USGS-products. The deck in the right box compartment is supposed to be a reprint of what is popularly known as the `roses and lilies'-pattern. Kaplan's was the first found, later another one showed up, now owned by a Dutch collector.

Does this new reprint do justice to the original? I have inspected both known decks in natura and I must say that it doesn't - by any means. We have seen examples that it is possible to reprint a deck, that is so close to the original, that the difference hardly can be seen. The feeling of the original can only be experienced when the material used comes close to that of the original, a feeling which this plasticized edition can not recreate. Looking at the figures, it is obviously a reprint of the original `roses and lilies' pattern, but one major reproduction problem is distinct in the coloured background areas, particularly are the blue and grey areas rather muddy and with larger grains than the original. Another peculiarity is, that the back pattern, which gave this edition its popular name, has disappeared to be substituted by one single `Irish rose' flanked by a stylized version of Smith's well known signature which even is missing its characteristic period sign. The ways of tarot publishers are past understanding.

What was the purpose of calling this reprint edition `Smith-´Waite'? I can see two explanations: Stuart R. Kaplan would, undoubtedly, consider the many female `tarot readers' in USA, who constitute the majority of his customers. There have recently been voices advocating Pamela Colman Smith as the true creator of the Waite-Smith tarot. The fact is, imo, that without Waite there would not have been a `Smith tarot', all the while there easily could have been a `Waite Tarot' with another artist. Luckily, the two of them found each other and created this inevitable tarot. The other explanation for the name is a lot more down to earth. Kaplan wanted to register the deck's name as a trademark, which he likely could not do, since the name `Waite-Smith' was already used publicly. I, for example, registered the web-name `' back in 2002.

Summing up: The book with PCS's illustrations in colour are worth the whole set. The deck is acceptable but not more than that. Waite's `Illustrated Key' with no illustrations is a disaster. The box it all comes in is gorgeous. All made in China (even if I am in doubt about the deck's origin since there is no statement about that).

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Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set
U.S. Games Systems Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-57281-639-8
Review first published on Manteia Online
© K. Frank Jensen 2009