lady frieda harris

︎Artist, Painting, Tarot, Philosohpy, Occult   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“The spiritual quality of earth: eternally pregnant and containing in its fertility the unwritten cipher of cosmic lore.”

In her letters to Aleister Crowley, Lady Frieda Harris wrote that, “Contrary to everybody’s impression, the Tarot Cards were not intended for the purposes of divination. They are a Map of the Universe and they might quite easily be compared with the symbols of mathematics. Regarded as such they represent a convenient means of stating cosmic problems…
I have made an effort in the present pack to embody this current mode of the century. Therefore I have tried to introduce among the card an element of Time. In nearly all the designs, the straight line of the former cards - such as check patterns, the rays of the sun, the chart of the Universe and the stars, are expressed in a curve. I hope to convey the idea of movement… This really means that you can look at any of the pictures, thinking in what I may describe as four dimensions. This requires great concentration and is an incentive to meditation.

Little is known about the private life of Lady Frieda Harris (1877–1962), except that she was a suffragette who married ‘radical socialist’ and Liberal Party MP, Percy Harris and initially published illustrations and esoteric writings under the pseudonym ‘Jesus Chutney’, to be judged on the merits of her creativity rather than her title.
Although Harris’ creative persona was often clandestine, she was closely associated with various provokative characters of esoteric and co-masonry societies. She became most widely known as the artist executant of the Thoth Tarot.
At sixty years old, Harris was to urge infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley (a precursor to the countercultural movements of the 1960's with his two central philosophies of "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" and "Love is the law, love under will."), to revise the symbolism of the traditional tarot deck as a legacy to his life’s work.
Initially refusing the project, Crowley eventually gave way to Harris’ enthusiasm. The tarot deck was then accompanied by The Book of Thoth, as a means of understandng the new holisitc symbolism of Thelema; Crowley’s complex, comparative, cosmological philosophy of anceint symbolism. 

Intended as a six month project, but through the often demanding specifications imposed by Crowley (as well as the early threat of air raids during WWI), Harris spent almost five years drawing and redrawing the designs, sometimes draughting upto eight versions for a single card.
Despite the strain this took on their creative relationship, Harris’ artwork became iconic, from the standpoint of both Tarot history and Thelemic imagery, and consequently the Thoth Tarot is one of the most popular Tarot decks in the world, having never been out of print since it's first publication.

“Tarot is a pictorial representation of the Forces of Nature as conceived by the Ancients according to a conventional symbolism. The Sun is a star. Around him revolve a number of bodies called Planets. including the Moon, a satellite of the Earth. These bodies revolve in one direction only. The Solar system is not a sphere, but a wheel. The planets do not remain in exact position but swing to a certain extent from one side of the true plane to the other. Their orbits are elliptical. The Ancients imagined this wheel very much more clearly than modern minds. They paid particular attention to the imaginary rim. Within the limits of this rim, they conceived that the Fixed Stars beyond were in a special way connected with the apparent motion of the Sun. This rim or belt of the wheel they called the Zodiac. The constellations outside this belt did not seem to them to matter so much to mankind, because they were not in the direct line of the great whirling force of the wheel. (T.A.R.O. / R.O.T.A. = wheel.)” - Book of Thoth.

Harris was also a student of Anthroposophy; a research philosophy of social and spiritual intuition that gave primacy to developing the faculties of imagination via open and honest analytical methods.
Originally developed by Rudolf Steiner and used as a pedagogical method, Anthroposophy aimed to give spiritual experiences a similar clarity to that attained by the natural sciences. It’s name was derived from ‘human’ (anthropos) and ‘wisdom’ (sophia).

Harris, much like Steiner, had inclinations that the conceptual powers of imagination, inspiration and intuition, once cultivated to a certain level of concentration, could extend the limits of nature in order to merge it with the self-reflective aspect of philosophy, ecology, art and science.

Harris also studied the art of Projective Geometry, a mathematical approach influenced by the discovery of perspective during the Italian Renaissance, which imbues the overall aesthetic of the Thoth Tarot with a meticulous compositional balance that Harris viewed as the fourth dimension of time. 

With allusions to Astrology, the Kabbala, Gematria, Gnosticism, and Egyptian mythology, the Thoth Tarot is an embodiment of Harris' skills of visually conjuring the multidimensional symbology of Crowley's universe outlined in the accompanying Book of Thoth.
Noted for rarely saying anything nice about anyone, Crowley paid uncharacteristic tribute to Harris with adulation in the biographical note from The Book of Thoth:

“She devoted her genius to the Work. With incredible rapidity she picked up the rhythm, and with inexhaustible patience submitted to the corrections of the fanatical slave-driver that she had invoked, often painting the same card as many as eight times until it measures up to his Vanadium Steel yardstick! May the passionate “love under will” which she has stored in this Treasury of Truth and Beauty flow forth from the Splendor and Strength of her work to enlighten the world; may this Tarot serve as a chart for the bold seamen of the New Aeon, to guide them across the great Sea of Understanding to the City of the Pyramids.”

Both Harris and Crowley never actually saw the published version of the tarot deck, however. Frieda Harris having died in 1962, Crowley in 1947, with the final draft of the deck released in 1969. The originals are now housed in the Warburg Institute, London.

Further Reading ︎
The Art of Freida Harris
Women & The Occult