Just a short distance from the British Museum lies Treadwell’s Books, a local retailer that caters to those with interests in magic, the occult, and witchcraft. Not only do they offer renowned lectures, but they also possess one of the finest selections of esoteric literature to be found in the city. And down in the basement, an area that serves as both a gallery and presentation space, a rather unusual object resides.
A corner of the room holds what looks like a rather ordinary Victorian-era fireplace, adorned with candles and framed pictures of celebrated authors of the paranormal. But what makes this ordinary piece of household furnishing unique, is that it once belonged to the often-overlooked illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, who lived from 1878 to 1951.
Many people who dabble in the spiritual realm (and even some who don’t) may be familiar with Smith’s work. She is credited with drawing the images associated with the Rider-Waite tarot deck, a popular set of 78 playing cards split into two groups, the major arcana, (22) and minor arcana (56). The major contains cards with images such as: the fool, death, and hanged man. While the minor consists of four suits with of 14 cards each: wands or rods (clubs); cups (hearts); swords (spades); and coins or pentacles, (diamonds). Together, these five suits that are commonly used for fortune-telling and other games.
A. E. Waite was commissioned by the Rider publishing company in 1909, to produce an assortment of mystical playing cards. Both Waite and Smith were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th-century secret society that was passionate about the examination and application of the supernatural. Waite approached Smith to provide artwork that would illustrate the various symbols and imagery associated with each card.
Smith’s artistic style predates that of the Arts and Crafts Movement that was popular at the time, but still reflects techniques that are heavily influenced by Romanticism and Symbolism. She was also associated with two famous Irish writers; Bram Stoker and W. B. Yeats. Even though there are millions of copies, as well as numerous facsimiles, of this deck of cards, Smith received only a moderate commission. It is only recently that she has received more recognition, with the deck now being referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith edition.
If you happen to find yourself in the neighborhood of Fitzrovia, head on over to the cellar of Treadwell’s Books. Perhaps you will find yourself having your fortune read by a modern mystic, on a set of cards that were created by a Victorian-age woman, who went by the nickname “Pixie,” in front of a fireplace that she used to own.
Know Before You Go
Treadwell's is open everyday from noon. Check website for information on classes, events, and tarot readings.
The fireplace is situated downstairs at the back of the shop. Just ask the store staff who will gladly let you go and see it.