Hidden secrets of the National Trust at Smallhythe Place
In 2013, Susannah Mayor, the house steward at Smallhythe Place, uncovered yet another hidden secret of this National Trust property: two previously-unseen, and therefore uncatalogued, folders of paintings by the prolific artist, Pamela Colman Smith.
Pamela was born in London in 1878, before moving to Manchester, and then Kingston, Jamaica, for her father’s work. She began an art degree in Brooklyn. However, this was abandoned after the death of her mother, and she travelled to London.
‘A Savant with a child’s heart’, as the poet W B Yeats’ father, John, described her, Yeats commissioned her illustrations for his 1898 'Book of Illustrated Verses'. It was through their friendship that Colman Smith became a member of the elite Victorian occult organization: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and would, many years later, design what is still the world’s most popular Tarot deck: the Waite-Smith deck.
This was to be the beginning of many creative collaborations with English actors, writers and artists. In 1899, Pamela turned 21 and her father died in the same year. She then joined the Lyceum Theatre in London as a set designer. With no parents to guide her, she was taken under the wing of the Lyceum’s owner Henry Irving, and his leading lady Ellen Terry. It was also here that she formed a firm friendship with the theatre’s business manager (and author of Dracula) Bram Stoker. (Colman Smith would go on to illustrate Stoker’s final book: The Lair of the White Worm).
Many of the paintings at Smallhythe come from the sailing to the United States for the Lyceum’s 1900 tour of America. Several of these are whimsical cartoons, hinting at a great fondness between Pamela and Ellen’s daughter Edy. Ellen’s nickname for Edy and Pamela were Puck and Pixie, respectively. Sometimes, they were collectively known as ‘The Devils’ which suggests there was a great deal of mischief-making on tour.
In addition to creating the illustrations for Ellen’s book, 'Diaghilev's Ballets Russes', and writing and illustrating her own books, she began a magazine, 'The Green Sheaf', to which Yeats, Ellen’s son Gordon Craig, and Edy’s partner Christopher St John all contributed. She also supported the suffrage movement, creating artwork for the Suffrage Atelier, a collective of professional illustrators.
In later years, Pamela converted to Catholicism, running a vacation home for Catholic Priests. She died in penury, her entire estate being sold to pay off her debts. Smallhythe Place is therefore incredibly fortunate to have found this wonderful treasure amongst its collection.