The Crowley deck has had a long and complex history. Not only did it take Lady Frieda Harris five years to paint the cards, but the completed work remained unpublished for twenty-five years.
The first (and little known) printing was done privately by Carr Collins and his Texas based Sangreal Foundation. This was a very poor printing, in one color. It was not until 1969 that an American publisher of occult books arranged for the first color edition, the actual printing being done in Hong Kong. Undoubtedly, Lady Harris, who had insisted that only the English printer of government postage stamps would be allowed to produce the deck, would have been very disappointed (if not sickened) by these editions.
In 1979 the cards were finally published in an edition conforming to the highest standards of reproduction. Yet it was not without serious obstacles that the cards appeared. In the interim between the Sangreal and the corrected edition, the curator of the collection of Crowley documents housed at the Courtauld Institute in London, refused to allow the original paintings to be photographed. The large collection of Crowleyana, donated to the Courtauld by Gerald Yorke, had been the object of numerous thefts and the museum was becoming increasingly cautious about allowing access to these materials. It was more than two years after negotiations began between Weiser's and the Courtauld, that the expertly produced Thoth Tarot finally appeared.
The project of painting the cards was begun in 1938, and was completed in 1943, as Lady Harris described in a lecture to the Tomorrow Club which remains the only public statement of her role in developing the deck:
In despair of arriving at any lucidity I will tell you how it happened that I painted these cards. I was interested in the Tarot after reading Ouspensky's book, The Model of the Universe. I could find very little information or research about it until I met A.C. He had studied the cards seriously for 40 years. . . I asked him to help me and with great patience and courtesy he did so and we tottered along for 5 years wrestling with the accumulated mass of tradition emanating from sources such as Freemasons, Alchemists, Rosi-crucians, Kabalists, Magicians, Geometricians, Gematricians, Mathematicians, Symbolists, Diviners, Numerologists, Druids, Spiritualists, Psychologists, Philologists, Budhists [sic], Togas, Psychoanalysts, Astrologers, even Heraldry, all of whom have left traces on the symbols employed. From these multitudes, we endeavoured to reinstate the cards in their original sacred, simple forms and, in addition, indicate the New Aeon of Horus, a terrifying apparition.
. . . The cards push me off my feet and I get into a train of thought that can only be expressed in gasps and hiccups. . . I have never tried to paint them with the help of automatic writing, trances, seances, mediums, autosuggestions, drugs, absent treatment, Yoga, meditation, mysterious masters or any other emotional approach of inspiration.
They are the result of hard work, honest investigation and common sense, which I believe are the true magics and were done in the open air and sunshine of the country.17
Lady Harris's comments reflect the deep inner exploration necessary to produce an occult work of this magnitude. Indeed, any artist who has painted an entire Tarot deck would agree with one of her more frustrated comments: "Sometimes when I am sufficiently crushed by all these meanings I say in the words of Alice in Wonderland 'Who cares for you. You're nothing but a pack of cards.' "18
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The pathology of the poet says that the undevout astronomer is mad the pathology of the very plain man says that the genius is mad and between these extremes, which stand for ten thousand analogous excesses, the sovereign reason takes the part of a moderator and does what it can. I do not think that there is a pathology of the occult dedications, but about their extravagances no one can question, and it is not less difficult than thankless to act as a moderator regarding them.