Pam, Arthur & Me
Unlike many people, the Rider Waite was not my first tarot. The first deck I chose was The Rohrig. The friend-of-a-friend who introduced me to the tarot in the 90s [and who’s name I don’t even remember now], took me to a strangely beautiful shop in London’s Covent Garden and told me to pick the one I was most drawn to. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the Devil in Carl Rohrig’s set, so even though it was one of the more expensive decks in the shop, I went with that in the end. I don’t remember seeing The Rider Waite then, even though I am sure it was there; it wasn’t for a good few years that I even found out what it was. I didn’t have an internet connection and owned just one book by Jonathan Dee, so I simply muddled through with The Rohrig by looking at the pictures. There was something very magical about that time.
When I left London, I returned to my parent’s home to study art. It was during that year that I bought my first Waite deck. It was the Original Rider Waite with the blue and white Tudor Rose backs and it is still my favourite version today. I remember unwrapping the deck as I sat cross-legged on my bed. There was something other-worldly about the pictures; they were warming, like the illustrations of an antique children’s book. I felt as though I was stepping back in time or walking into a parallel universe. These characters had been waiting for me since before I was born and I was meeting them then for the first time.
I have a few different versions of the Waite deck, but this is the only one that takes me to another place. When I look at the 5 of Swords, I hear the waves crashing on the beach and the seagulls cackling overhead. I hear the trudging of the guys on the sand as they walk away defeated. I see the same image in the recoloured versions, but without the audio. Out of all the fancy decks I own, this one still never fails to hit the spot.
Bagging a Copy of the Radiant Rider Waite
I looked at the possibility of buying the Radiant Rider Waite Tarot at the time it came out in 2003. At that point, it seemed daring and bold and fresh, but with so many other deck opportunities about at the time, I quickly passed it aside. I had read that the people in it looked unhappy and disconnected, so not having it wasn’t too much of a problem for me then.
When my boyfriend asked me what I would like for last year’s birthday, my interest in the Radiant resurfaced again. I always find myself going back to one of the Rider variants and thought this one had a bit more life than the others (the white backgrounds in many of the Universal Waite cards always bugged me, due to feeling quite cold). I also liked that the suit names are printed onto each card at the bottom, for quick reference in readings.Though based heavily on the well-known images of Pamela Colman Smith, the Radiant is ‘recoloured’ by Virginijus Poshkus. Poshkus appears to be an illustrator in his own right, having illustrated the Natural World Playing Cards, also published by U.S. Games.
Yes, it is true that many of these clones lose details from the original (I am thinking of the Hebew letters on Temperance’s dress as just one example), but some do bring something else to the party; notably here, it is the palette. Aside from being richer than others we might be used to, there is the addition of some beautiful purples, which I cannot remember seeing in any of the other Waite colourations (aside from in clone decks like the Hoi Polloi and the Adam Fronteras pack).
So for this part of my creative review, it was colour that guided me in creating a bag for the deck. Rather than concentrating on the purples, which occupy about only four of the cards in the pack, I went in search of fabrics which felt in line with it’s main colouring. I found plain and patterned blues, a rich yellow for lining, and a printed swatch with teapots on. My friend reminded me of the burnt yellows in the cards, so I went to a second shop to find an appropriate cord, some ribbon, and a button.
The bag I have made is slimmer than many you might find in the shops, but the deck fits inside snugly. To be honest, I hate bags that are too big, because there is always a chance that the cards might become bent if they are able to move about inside too freely.
The Theatre of Pamela Colman Smith
I have strong memories of a puppet theatre from my childhood. It wasn’t anything particularly elaborate. It was something my mother made for me out of a large cardboard sheet. She had cut a hole in it’s centre and had made curtains for the window. With the sides folded, it stood tall in our lounge and housed performances by both Sooty and a cheap plastic clown puppet I received within an Easter egg. I can remember my grandmother sitting there watching, while the kids next door and I put on shows. There was something exciting about pulling and drawing the curtains and making stories with the characters. It’s funny how you never really remember it as just a tarted-up cardboard box. The magic was in the performances, rather than the way it looked. With i-pods and handheld games, I challenge any child to not enjoy the magic of a house made out of clothes horses and their parent’s clean sheets. It’s all in the imagination and creativity.
It is common knowledge that Pamela Colman Smith worked as a stage designer. Over the years, I have often read of people likening some details of the Rider Waite Tarot to the components of a stage. I agree that in cards such as the 10 of Cups, it does look as if the family stand in front of a piece of flat scenery. Before she died, my friend Annie and I painted some scenery for a school production. At the time, it reminded me of the Waite tarot, as I drew up the side of a big castle at the back, with the clouds and blue sky behind it.
While thinking about how to respond to both the Original Rider Waite and the Radiant Rider Waite, it was Pamela and her life that I wanted to follow. I have read that she was connected to the theatre in many ways; as well as being part of an acting group herself, her mother was a parlour actress and she was related to the actor, William Gillette. It got me thinking about how I might make a theatre, since I had a small scale model of one in my twenties, made out of card. After much moving here and there, I don’t have it anymore, so started to look online for some kind of kit. I didn’t have much luck, but did find a template for one on the BBC website. I downloaded it and took a look. At that point, something was born in this review.
The PDF I downloaded was a bit hazy, so I took from it what I needed. In this case, it was only the shape of the front of the theatre. Rather than the reds, blues, and artwork within it, I changed it for something quite different. I began to colour it in the gorgeous sage greens of the Original Rider Waite, adding pictures from the cards into its details. For the top, I added some of the background from the Ace of Pentacles, and after wiping out the young man, I used just the landscape behind the Page of Pentacles for another panel. In the original there were people in the balconies. I replaced them with characters from Pamela’s drawings, including the Knight of Cups. After explaining what I was doing to my friend, she shared a scan of a theatre made by Pamela. I was amazed by the coincidence, since I was never aware she had made such a thing.
I pretty much disregarded the remainder of the PDF and let natural creation take hold. I found a box which I modified to house the theatre in, covering it in black card. I made my own boards for the actors and actresses to tread and made my own scenery from the Ace of Pentacles and The Moon, combining the two together in Photoshop. Then I made the little people by adjusting them all to the same size, printing them, and then laminating them. With little tabs, they can all stand independently. I have The High Priestess, the couple from the 2 of Cups, and The Hermit, all waiting in the wings, ready to perform.
In just about every book I have read on tarot, I have been advised to simply play with the cards. People often enjoy decks like The Morgan Greer because without the borders, the images bleed into one another more easily. But what could make things easier than gently helping the performers out of the cards to roam free on this stage which is the landscape of The Rider Waite?
You wouldn’t believe just how interesting this can be. Can you imagine that girl from the 2 of Cups ditching her beau and seeking a little advice from The Hermit? (who knew that she wasn’t content with her partner!). Elsewhere, it might seem that those ladies in the 3 of Cups don’t let strangers in to their circle very easily; just line up The Queen of Swords with them and you’ll see that they hardly acknowledge her. Hmmm, that makes me look at the card a little differently. And when The High Priestess is approached by others from the tarot deck, she appears stranger and even more uncommunicative than we might first have thought. These guys certainly appear different when left to their own devices.
One of the things I tried was to use the characters from my readings on the stage to see how they interacted with one another. When the two from the 2 of Cups are split, I found it interesting to see how they reacted with the Page of Cups from the same reading. He has always been my favourite card in this deck. He was the one I looked to when I first bought it twelve years ago; you might call him my tour guide to the Rider Waite or the guy who introduces the acts at the theatre. When he steps into the well recognised relationship of the 2 of Cups, so many scenarios pop up. Is it the boy or girl he chooses to run off with? In this scene, the boy from the card rests a hand on the page’s arm, much to the alarm of the woman who has just walked in on them. Could this young guy, with love on his mind, come between the couple in a two card spread?
Old Friends and New Friends
I have one mate who I have known for about 36 years. When I eventually moved away from her and London at the age of 17, I was devestated and would call her as often as I could. I never thought I would make another friend as good again. Of course, she is still one of the closest people to me in my circle of friends, but in the last twenty-odd years, I have other very close friends in my life. The Original Rider Waite is still one of my all time favourites. I guess that like my friend, I just know it that bit more than any other; however, I smirked at the Radiant the other day when it literally surprised me by its accuracy. In the same way that I thought I’d not make a friend as close as Jane, the Radiant is just as good as it’s ‘old man’. The decks simply shine at different times. When I wake up and the sun is streaming through the window, encouraging me to get up, get showered, and get reading, then The Radiant is perfect. It’s good for a Summer afternoon out at the beach or with an icecream in a seaside cafe (the lamination makes it good for wiping clean). But if your’re feeling under the weather or fancy the whisper of quite reflection, the Original Rider Waite soothes in it’s soft greens and warming yellows. That’s one to take into the garden in August for a heart to heart or a late-night questions and answer session. It’s just fantastic in candle light.
Speaking of friends, I would like to finish this review with a thank you to one of mine. If it wasn’t for the wonderfully inspiring reviews of Judith Johnston, there would never have been a Radiant bag, Theatre of Pamela Colman Smith or this review. Art is a wonderful thing to share. It’s what makes tarot so special. I would just like to thank Judith for sharing with and inspiring me. In some way, I hope that this creative view has inspired you too.
Illustration from E. A. Waite’s Original Rider Waite Tarot by Pamela Coleman Smith. Published by U. S. Games.
Illustration from The Radiant Rider Waite, based on the drawings of Pamela Colman Smith and redrawn by Virginijus Poshkus. Published by U. S. Games
Radiant bag and The Theatre of Pamela Colman Smith model by Steven Bright