The Early Waite-Smith Tarot Editions: New Discoveries

In "Twenty Years of Tarot: The Lo Scarabeo Story", Pietro Alligo publishes a comprehensive study of the early Waite-Smith tarot editions, a study which opens up quite new perspectives on the history of this spectacular esoteric tarot pack. Essentially, Alligo discusses and advocates a printing sequence of the four decks, `Pam-A-roses and lilies', `Pam-A-pebbled', `Pam-B' and `Pam-C' respectively, different from the publication sequence, I suggested in my book "The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot" (Association of Tarot Studies (ATS), 2006). Not that Alligo disagrees about the publication sequence, but his research is a convincing argument for Pam-B/Pam-C being the first printed edition. For various reasons these decks were, however, not put on the market immediately, but stored away for ten years or more. Instead another printing took place, resulting in Pam-A, which was the first edition, that reached the market.

Alligo mentions that he, after having searched for the first Waite-Smith tarot deck for a long time, received a pack as a gift from a Dutch friend, whose father had been the owner of an antiquarian book shop in Amsterdam. The father had in turn received the deck as a gift from A.E. Waite himself. Interesting to note is, that two decks, even two different editions, which both have been in the hands of Waite, are now known, the second being the deck Stuart R. Kaplan took over from Waite's daughter Sybil.

After a lengthy and detailed study of his accession, comparing it with high-resolution scans and enlargements of other known early editions, carefully measuring card frames and borders, studying the hatching methods used and consulting experts on early printing techniques, Alligo comes to the conclusion that not less than three versions of the deck were printed over a couple of months at the end of 1909 and the beginning of 1910. The first deck, or rather decks, being `Pam-B' and `Pam-C' (Alligo names them both `original'), which are identical except for the different versions of The Sun. The second being `Pam-A-roses and lilies' (by Alligo called `copy') and the third being `Pam-A-pebbled ` (by Alligo called `official').

The following is my step-by-step simplification of the printing procedures described by Alligo. To get the full understanding of the process and of Alligo's argumentation, you need to read his own article, which is profusely illustrated in colour. You will also get an understanding of the intricate problems with the proportions between card size and image size.

1. Pamela Colman Smith sketched the oversized black line art by pencil, drawing the line art over with ink and afterwards filled in the colours.

2. A copyist - or more - transferred the line illustrations to the black ink lithographic stone plate, using a squared transparent paper to facilitate the work.

3. To render Pam's colours, four additional printing plates were prepared, based on her colours: one for each of the colours: yellow, hazel, turquoise and red.

4. The first printing of the Pam-B (`original') deck took place, printing the four colour stones on the cardboard upon each other in the given order, ending with the black line art stone. Some of the colours were printed on top of each other, creating other colours. At the same time, the reverse side of the cardboard was printed with the pebbled pattern. Alligo estimates that with drying time, it would take five days to print 400 copies.

5. Unfortunately, the black ink lithographic stone was damaged during the printing, causing a crack in the stone beginning from the upper outer edge and stretching down across a great part of The Sun's face. The damage within the face was repaired but traces can be seen as minor differences in the prints that followed. It was, however, too difficult to repair the upper part of the crack without interfering with the Roman numeral, so that part of the image was left with the damage. So simply does Alligo explain the mysterious line without any esoteric mumbo-jumbo involved! At the same occasion one of the Sunflowers, which had been missing the black dots, had them filled in and transverse lines were also added to the banner. The printing session was continued, the outcome now being Pam-C (still `original' in Alligo's terminology).

Then why is it not Pam-B or Pam-C (`original') we find in the earliest boxes and with the earliest edition of Waite's `Key'? Pietro Alligo is convinced that the unfortunate occurrence, the crack in the lithographic stone, after all was a main reason for why it was decided to redo the designs. He suggests, however, there are other explanations that as well could have led to the decision, such as that Waite himself wanted various last minute changes made to the images. Alligo points to and illustrates changes, which evidently were made.

What probably also influenced the decision of discarding the first printed decks was, that the editor intended to print Waite's book fully illustrated. To print a book, a different printing technology is used and for printing the book's illustrations metal cliches have to be made. That meant, that the line art had to be redrawn anyway. Once that was done it was fairly easy, by using a special prepared paper, to transport the images to a lithographic medium and thus reconstruct the plates necessary to print the deck again.

Therefore the steps finishing the deck were:

6: the line art was redrawn by laying a transparent paper over the printed `original' (Pam-C in this case). During the redrawing minor corrections, which Alligo again ascribes to Waite, were made, particularly stretching the size of some images a bit. The copyist working on the The Sun rendered the crack line as being a part of the image and it came to stay like that for the next 100 years or more. The redrawings were used partly to create the letterpress cliches, and partly to transfer the drawings to a lithographic medium.

7: the appropriate four plates for the colours were prepared.

8: A very small number of the deck was printed, using a different reverse side design: the roses and lilies. After having cut and trimmed a small number of decks, it was obvious that another problem had occurred. Due to the stretching of some images, several of them came too close to the edge of the trimmed cards. They could not be spaced differently on the stone, so the only solution was, that the sides of the images were reduced by simply erasing part of their edges away directly on the stone. That again caused the roses/lilies pattern to appear uncentered. At the end it was decided to start the print run using the pebbled pattern instead (Pam-A-pebbled or `official').

In general, Pietro Alligo's presentation is convincing and well documented. It clarifies some of the questions we have been left with for years, like the mystical line on "The Sun" and the self-contradicting appearance of Pam-B and Pam-C decks in packages sold with "Keys" dated 1920 and 1931. It also gives a much better explanation of the difference in paper weight hinted at in R.A. Gilbert's Waite-bibliography, than I have been able to come up with. One can wonder, why the discarded print run was not shredded immediately, instead of having been stored away and after ten years or more sent to market anyway. Likewise, if Alligo is right in the assumption that only a very few decks with roses and lilies backs were printed and found unsatisfactory, why were they not shredded, all of them? Admittedly, strange things happen in the card publishing business as I have noted lately, when a very limited edition, where printing plates are assumed to be destroyed after the print run, shows up again, years later, in a second limited edition.

Pietro Alligo is of the opinion, that A. E. Waite himself took direct, intense and personal interest in the printing process by demanding last minute corrections. I am not so convinced about that; I can hardly imagine Waite in that role. If he wanted to change anything, he most likely would have done it in connection with Pamela Colman Smith's original art. If Waite really meticulously cared for minor details, why didn't he care that the crack line was removed in the final print? He might, however, very well have been unsatisfied with the first result which, perhaps, did not live up to his general expectations. Essentially, it could as well have been William Rider, the publisher, who did not find the first printing satisfactory and ordered the work done once more. It was, after all, William Rider, who had to pay the bills. As one of his arguments for Pam-B being the original edition, Alligo mentions that it's artistic execution is of better quality. Here I disagree and Waite and/or Rider may well have got the same impression, so much more as Pamela Colman Smith shortly before the printing stated that her expectations to the outcome of the printing were very low. Looking close at Pam-B and Pam-C's line art it appears, as I have pointed out in my book, rather primitive and lumpy, like when the faces of the characters are lacking expressions, the head of the snake in The Lovers is almost recognizable, the feet are stunted etc. I would rather say, that the immediate inferiority of the first printed images could easily have been another reason for why the `original' (Pam-B/Pam-C) was discarded*). That the titles at the bottom of the cards are centered, as Alligo points out, is imo rather an indication that the copyists did not follow PCS's drawings exactly, but added their own `improvements'. If we look at Smith's book illustrations, she obviously preferred left alignment instead of a centering.


Anyway, with Pietro Alligo's study we have come a big step closer to understand, what really happened in December 1909 and January 1910, and why a lot went wrong. Alligo explains it in two words only: "production inexperience". When will the next step towards a full understanding come? The day we perhaps at last find Pamela Colman Smith's original artwork, even if only a few of the cards? If we are very lucky, they will show up for her 130 years anniversary on February 16th 2008..

© K. Frank Jensen, 2008

*) Alligo has stated that he distinguishes here between "artistic quality" and "print quality". He considers that the line art of Pam-B/C is more artistic, much more gentle, more uniform and much more delicate than what is the case with Pam-A. He may be right, that the first copyist was a better craftsman, so his strokes were more fluent than the one who worked on Pam-A, who had to draw the lines bit by bit. However, since the best craftsman's work was spoilt by incompetent printing, his work does, so to say, not exist any longer. To distinguish between "art-quality" and "print-quality" may, imo, be useful when it comes to analyze the process, but after all, it is the amalgamation of the two, which makes up the final artistic result to be judged.

PS: I asked Robert A. Gilbert, who knows Waite better than anyone else having studied his life for years, having access to his papers, having written his biography and compiled a bibliography of his complete works, about whether it was likely that Waite involved himself insisting on last minute changes to the lithographic stones.

This is Gilbert's reply:

...I find it highly unlikely that Waite interfered with the printing process; he tended to complain to publishers about their shortcomings long after the offending book/article had appeared. There is no evidence that he took a different approach over the cards, especially given that they were PCS's designs, albeit under his direction, and he accepted them for what they were. Also, the published cards were NEVER used within his branch of the Golden Dawn, nor later in the FRC. I doubt very much that he worried that much over niceties of printing. It reminds me of attempts to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare on the basis of errors in printing (which, of course, the Baconians see as deliberate). With Waite, as with everything else in life, common sense should prevail. It is our misfortune that in the esoteric world it rarely does.....

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