BY TRISTA EDWARDS
Many people know Pamela Colman Smith as the artist who illustrated the popular Rider-Waite tarot deck. Born in London in 1878, Smith was also a prolific writer and storyteller who traipsed among the literary elite and salons of both New York and "The Old Smoke" garnering the friendship and support of J.M. Barrie, William Butler Yeats, and Bram Stoker. Her renowned pack, a collaboration with academic and mystic Arthur Edward Waite, was first created in 1910. Smith’s other creative pursuits, however, have remained lesser known but are just as magical.
Two years after the creation of her legendary tarot deck, Smith penned and illustrated a children’s story for the American fashion magazine The Delineator. The story, "Susan and the Mermaid," originally appeared in the Christmas issue and told the story of the young girl Susan who, with the power of her grandmother’s enchanted ring, transports into a charmed underwater world and follows about a green-skinned mermaid with blue hair donning a strand of red beads around her neck.
The story is delightful and entertaining, but it is Smith’s whimsical illustrations of the mermaid kingdom that remain reminiscent of her tarot creations. The readers get to visit such mer-characters as a poet reading under a tree, a mer-lady picking gooseberries, Her Majesty, Queen of Tides, the Colonel wearing a mother-o’-pearl helmet, and more. Perhaps the most impressive illustration is the kingdom itself--a vast, vibrant palace of snaking turrets, fungi-topped towers, hanging gardens, and swirls of coral.
Her characters and setting remain archetypal. Smith’s tale fulfills that childlike appeal to leave one world for another more enticing one. The young Susan visits a magical kingdom with a mermaid court with the blue-haired siren as her guide. The story is maternal as it focuses on the grandmother and the fetishism of her mystical ring and the culminating monarchal procession of the Queen of Tides who carries a jeweled scepter in her right hand and the full moon in her left. This enchanting children’s story holds a wealth of symbolism that does not trail from Smith’s tarot deck.
Another wondrous detail about this children’s tale is that upon its release in the December issue of The Delineator, Smith designed a yuletide toy-theater version of "Susan and the Mermaid" to complement her original story for the holidays. In addition to sketching her more famous illustrations, Smith adored creating toy theaters, paper-dolls, props, and cardboard scenery for her young audience to fashion their own worlds of make believe. The Christmas scene came complete with Susan, her blue-haired companion, a beautifully adorned Christmas tree, mer-children with toy boats, and, of course, the Queen of Tides.
Smith includes a set of instructions for the general construction of cutting and pasting the scene together. Here is her final notes to her young readers for creating the scene: