Interview with Sarah Ovenall and Georg Patterson
Conducted by Diane Wilkes
The Victoria Regina Tarot, published recently by Llewellyn, has been long awaited by those in the know in the tarot community. Sarah Ovenall is the artist of this remarkable deck--she also co-wrote the companion book with tarot enthusiast Georg Patterson. Sarah and Georg might not look like Fred and Ginger, but their collaboration is a graceful, memorable dance just the same.
DW: Sarah, what was your inspiration for the Victoria Regina Tarot
(other than the obvious Victoria Regina)? What made you decide to create a tarot
SO: As a matter of fact, when I first began this project it had nothing to do with Queen Victoria, and it wasn't even a Tarot deck. I started out intending to design a set of playing cards. Pretty pictures weren't enough; I wanted my cards to express a coherent system of meaningful relationships.
Developing a unique symbolic system is no small task for an experienced scholar, and I was anything but. I struggled with it, not really getting anywhere, until Georg suggested that what I was really doing was designing a Tarot deck, not a playing card deck. So why didn't I work with an existing Tarot system rather than starting from scratch?
I didn't really know anything about the Tarot, so I borrowed a Waite-Smith deck from a friend and used it as a model. Once I had gotten into the project, I realized that if my deck were simply a slavish imitation of another deck, it wasn't going to be very good. So I got a couple of books, which over the years became dozens of
books and even more decks. I also joined the amateur press association APA-Tarot. Through APA-Tarot I learned of the Tarot-L mailing list, and later the Comparative Tarot list, where I met many people I am lucky to count among my teachers and friends.
Carrie O'Brien, a member of APA-Tarot, suggested the name of Victoria Regina Tarot (VRT). At the time, I was using the singularly inappropriate "Ripoff Tarot" as a working title. I offhandedly mentioned on TarotL that if the deck was named after Queen Victoria, then her picture ought to be on the Empress card. Ian Rogers, then-member of TarotL, wrote to me suggesting how Victoria could be featured as all four Queens. That was the genesis of the Victorian history element of the deck: if it weren't for Ian's suggestion, VRT might well have ended up having no connection to the Victorian era except the art style.
DW: How involved were you, Georg, in the beginning and the creative process?
GP: At about the same time Sarah started talking about creating a deck of
playing cards, I was getting interested in tarot. When she mentioned wanting to have symbols and meaning on the cards and not just suit
markings, I brought up how that was more like tarot decks than playing card decks. From such seemingly offhand observations are
In the early stages of the work, my main role was as research assistant. We both spent many hours in the periodicals stacks at Perkins Library at Duke, poring through volumes of Illustrated London News and other magazines from 19th century England. Anytime I saw something that struck me as a good example of a particular card, or just as a really good illustration, I'd either tag it for Sarah to look at or just make a copy of it. As more and more cards were completed, the process became more selective and time-consuming as we'd be going to the library looking for specific images or kinds of images (we need someone for the Nine of Coins, or whatever). The final decision on which images to use and how to design the cards was always Sarah's.
For the book, we divided things up. Sarah wrote the sections for cards dealing with Victoria and the Royal Family, and also created
one of the spreads. The other spread, it certainly bears repeating, was created especially for the deck by Valerie Sim, of
Comparative Tarot. I wrote the text for the minors and worked on smoothing
out the overall style. And then we edited each other back and forth.
DW: How did you both discover the tarot?
SO: My experience with the Tarot was minimal at the time that I started working on Victoria Regina. Out of curiosity, I had bought an Aquarian deck while in college. But I found the little white booklet rather arbitrary and unhelpful. I didn't realize that there were actual books out there for learning about the Tarot, so I ended up cutting up the Aquarian deck and using it in collages. I still have one of those collages. After that my next encounter with the Tarot was VRT.
GP: Like Sarah, I'd seen a copy of someone's Aquarian deck when I was in
college but I'd never owned one or known much about tarot. Many years later (in 1994) I met a friend of a friend who was never without a
well-worn copy of the Waite-Smith deck. Over many nights spent hanging out at the Art Bar in the West Village (NYC), I watched him
give readings and we all started talking about what tarot was and wasn't and how it worked or didn't work. I bought a deck or two and a book or two. We did lots of readings and did lots of arguing. We even
got ourselves organized into a small study/discussion group for a while.
After moving to North Carolina, my involvement with tarot was mostly thru helping Sarah work on VRT, collecting decks, and being on Tarot-L and Comparative Tarot mailing lists. Sarah and I were also part of a small study group in the Triangle for a few months.
DW: What special link(s) does the Victorian time period have with the tarot?
SO: The obvious connection is the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Victorian occult organization. Two of the most influential decks today, the Waite-Smith deck and the Crowley Thoth deck, were created by members of the Golden Dawn.
I find this to be more than just a coincidental connection, in that both Waite and Crowley grew up in Victorian Britain. No matter how much one consciously tries to abandon the cultural framework of one's youth, I think it must have some sort of impact on one's way of looking at things. Most American tarotists use systems that are derived from the Waite or Crowley systems. Both of which are in some way rooted in the mindset of Victorian Britain.
GP: As Sarah said, the Golden Dawn is the most obvious.
The Waite and Crowley decks have almost wholly shaped 20th century tarot in the US (and UK, I think but I don't know much about the
British tarot scene). Even decks which are not Waite or Crowley clones or
interpretations seem to be created in conscious opposition to their tradition. The more I read about the Victorian period, the more the GD seems a
part of the social fabric. There's a tendency to see them as completely separate from mainstream society. But I think there's
something quite Victorian about GD and that many connections can be made between GD ideas and other parts of the culture/society.
DW: Do you have any favorite card(s) in VRT? Why do they attract you?
SO: Of course I am going to have special feelings about every card in the
deck. The Devil is one of my favorite cards, because I feel like it works both compositionally and symbolically. Even the background, an image of the
British Navy destroying a slave encampment, relates to the meaning of the card. Plus the clown is just really creepy. It's hard
to believe that clown was originally intended to be charming or cute, not scary.
The Princess of Wands features Victoria's daughter Louise, a figure for whom I developed a great fondness and admiration. She was quite a rebel by the standards of the time. She was the first British royal to legally marry a commoner in over three hundred years. And as a professional sculptor who worked on commission, she was the first British princess to ever be educated outside the home or to be paid for her work. I admire her for overcoming family objections (including her mother's, which must have been fearsome) in order to pursue her art.
I love those flying monkey heads in the Seven of Cups! I found them in an advertisement for a soap powder called Brooke's "Monkey Brand" soap. Every ad featured a monkey: sliding down a banister, washing dishes, putting on makeup, etc. This one had a woman holding a cornucopia, out of which spilled clean pots and pans, and the flying monkey heads. It was such a deliriously bizarre image that I wanted to jump for joy when I saw it.
DW: Georg, what are your favorites?
GP: I have quite a few, actually. Some I like more because of the stories/characters we found to write about that card for the book. Some I think are exceptionally good illustrations of the meaning of the card. And some I just think look damn good. Here's one of each example:
The King of Wands, not only for the flaming pens, but for Disraeli, a great
character and a great fit (for this card).
The Seven of Swords is an image which gave me a chance to include information on Victorian crime from one of my favorite books that I read for the VRT project, The Victorian Underworld (Donald Thomas).
Finally, the Nine of Coins is a lovely image and compositionally one of the finest in the deck.
DW: Tell me a bit about the research you did with Queen Victoria and her times. Anything you wanted to include in the book, but didn't?
SO: Georg did most of the historical research; my reading was mainly
related to Victoria's immediate family. My favorite book was probably Victoria's
Daughters, by Jerrold Packard, a highly entertaining, though perhaps not too rigorous, biography of VR's five daughters.
I also very much enjoyed reading the correspondence between Victoria and her eldest daughter Vicky, Empress Frederick of Germany. Vicky was a fascinating woman who led a tragic life, mainly related to her failure to handle the political maneuvering of the German court, and her mistreatment at the hands of her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II. I had very much wanted to include her in the deck, but couldn't find a good place for her. She might have made a very good Queen of Swords, as she did seem to gain a certain wisdom and personal strength in widowhood that was totally lacking in her as a younger woman. But with all the Queens assigned to Victoria, there wasn't another card that seemed suitable for Vicky.
In terms of collage source material, I have a stack of images that I wish I could have found a place for. The one that stands out most in my mind is a lovely illustration of Ellen Terry (the renowned actress and close friend of Pamela Colman Smith) posing as Guinnivere. I've thought about adding an "Almost Gallery" to my web site so people could see the art that almost made it into the deck.
GP: The process by which the book became a collision of Victoriana and
tarot lore was gradual. As the deck became more thematic, I started doing more and more reading of pretty much anything I saw in the
library or at friends' houses that looked like it could provide interesting angles on Victorian life. I also found many websites with
text from journals and broadsheets of the period. Reading the articles in the Illustrated London News as we looked for images, or
in Punch (which was not graphically a good match for VRT style) also gave me
ideas or pointed me towards new information.
There were many, many stories and characters I'd have loved to get into the deck/book. Too many to list really. I think the most frustrating was the painter John Everett Millais. Reading a biography of Millais, I came across a mention of him having been at a Jubilee parade watching from the roof of the Illustrated London News building. I think I actually did manage to find an illustration of the scene but it was just a sketch of the crowd and not one which included a recognizable Millais. Though he was quite successful, and even notorious for a time, I never found a good illustration of him that could be used in the deck.
DW: What tarot books were most influential on you as you created the deck and wrote the book--and why?
SO: By far the most useful book for me was The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. 3 by Stuart Kaplan. With such a wide variety of decks showing the many different ways the cards can be interpreted, it was an invaluable resource.
In addition to the Encyclopedia, the books that I consider most influential would include 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack, Tarot Symbolism by Robert O'Neill, and the Light and Shadow Tarot companion book by Brian Williams.
GP: Like Sarah, I would say Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollock and Kaplan's Tarot Encyclopedia. Also: Experiencing the Kabbalah by Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabitha Cicero, The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley for reference and basic information on tarot, tarot history, meanings, interpretations, and so on.
Brian Williams' books for the Light and Shadow and PoMo Tarots and Arnell Ando's book for
Transformational Tarot are excellent models on how to write about tarot, how to engage the story on a personal level.
If the book is half as good as those, I'll be quite happy. I also used Tarot for
Your Self by Mary Greer to get away from the history and relate to the cards
DW: What are your plans to let the tarot community know about your deck and book? I've always thought you should publish note cards and/or postcards from some of the VRT cards. Any plans to do that?
SO: Funny you should mention note cards -- I've been meaning to print note cards for some time now. I had hoped to have them ready by the time the deck was released. The only problem is finding the time! There always seems to be something more pressing that needs to be done right now. But yes, I do intend to print note cards. Besides that, my web site is my primary means of letting the tarot community know about the deck.
DW: Why did you choose the suit symbols (pen, mason jar, gun, pocket watches)?
SO: Since the pen is a natural tool for an artist to express creative fire, pens for wands was an obvious choice. Although it has caused occasional confusion from people who think of "the pen is mightier than the..." and assume that pens must be swords. But I hope that it's clear once people see the pens and guns together.
Mason jars, by providing an easy means for families to preserve food, indicate the changing nature of family life in the Victorian era.
I chose guns for swords as a tribute to the Pomo Tarot by Brian Williams. I think it makes sense considering that swords have lost their purpose as a weapon and have become almost totally symbolic objects. When the first Tarot decks were created, one of the suits depicted a lethal weapon. Now the primary lethal weapon is the gun.
Pocket watches for coins grew out of the expression "time is money." Also, the pocket watch is an example of the obsession with efficiency, invention, and mechanical innovation that was characteristic of the Victorian era.
DW: What have some of your favorite experiences with the deck and/or the tarot community been?
GP: Without a doubt, the trip to Italy in
1999, organized and conducted by Brian Williams, which grew out of Tarot-L and was full of wonderful tarot talk and tarot people.
SO: I owe a lot to the online tarot community. I'm certain that without the people who befriended me, encouraged me, taught me and challenged me, VRT would have remained a personal art project and would not have been published.
It's hard to pick out one experience in particular, but I do remember one thing that happened early on, when I had only been working on the deck for a little while and hadn't even finished the trumps yet. I got an email from a fellow who had seen them on my web site. He went through each card one by one, commenting and analyzing each. He "got it" so well that he even commented that one card looked like I hadn't really finished -- and he was right! I had been frustrated with one card and had decided it was finished just to be done with it, even though I knew it really wasn't. It completely blew my mind that anyone could see so much in my cards. That was the first time I thought that maybe this little art project of mine was genuinely publishable.
DW: Is there anything you would change about the deck now if you could?
SO: To be honest, since it's too late to change anything I'm trying to think about it as little as possible. The one thing so far is the illustration of Queen Victoria in a military uniform, which shows up in the introduction of the book. I wish that I had used that image for the Queen of Wands, instead of the one that's currently in the deck. But at the time that I found the "military Vickie," I was under the gun to finish up the deck and book. I just didn't have the time to think about revising cards that were already done.
GP: I think the process of creating the cards would have been much less
difficult for Sarah if we'd had access to a scanner for the entire time, instead of just at the very end.
Since the moving finger, having writ, moves on, there's no way to go back and make changes, so I try not to dwell on that. One of the only
things I regret is that I'd found quotes from Yeats to lead into the section in the book for each suit and we had to drop those due to
concerns about permissions from the apparently quite litigious Yeats estate.
DW: What are your future plans?
SO: I would very much like to work on another tarot deck and am currently developing ideas in that regard. Unfortunately there's nothing concrete yet. But rest assured that I'll write all about it in my web diary as soon as I'm able.
You can read Sarah's web diary and find out much more about the Victoria Regina Tarot at her website. You can also order a signed copy of the deck from her and Georg via the site.
You can read a review of the Victoria Regina Tarot here.
Image of Aquarian Tarot Collage © Sarah Ovenall
Interview and page © 2002 Diane Wilkes