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First Images Of The New World

June 2024
5min read

“Lost Colony” Governor John White’s Early Paintings Colored European Views for Centuries

 In late 16th-century London, a group of curious Elizabethan courtiers gathered around a sheaf of watercolors and murmured in wonder. A cheife Herowans wife of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 yeares exhibited no spectacular artistry, yet did provide something extraordinary: the first representational glimpse of the New World. Aside from a few sailors and a handful of intrepid adventurers, no Europeans had laid eyes on North America or its inhabitants, either live or in representation, and so these images were akin today to seeing people who had never been photographed before.

The painting revealed a well-proportioned Algonquian mother carrying a gourd filled with water for her family, a smile lighting up her tattooed face, as if in warm conversation with the artist. She wore several strings of pearls (much treasured in England), while her daughter showed her a doll, a red glass bead necklace, and a gold pendant, which some Englishmen had given her and were the only evidence of Europe in the scene.

While it revealed people dressed differently from Europeans, the painting depicted nothing to give alarm. This image and others like it—the earliest known watercolors by an English artist—would remain the most compelling and accurate vision of a place that would soon become deeply interconnected with western Europe. They would color the vision Europeans held, as artists for generations would start from these images to recreate the new land. Generations later they have become a treasured record of those who lived in America before it was even so designated, “discovered,” and claimed for the namers, changing the continent and its natives’ lives forever.

Curiously little has been known about the creator of these powerful images, a relatively obscure man with a common name who traveled five times to the New World between 1584 and 1590, most of time under the patronage of Sir Walter Raleigh. John White had joined expeditions full of soldiers, surveyors, metallurgists, merchants, and gentlemen adventurers at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I to meet and trade with North Americans and to bring back information about them and the land in which they lived, which Raleigh had called “Virginia” in her honor. Fortunately, White, a gentleman who helped to survey and map the country, also proved to be an accomplished limner, or painter in watercolors.

The net effect of his creations was a theater of the New World, complete with figures acting out their lives as if on an English stage—not as two-dimensional characters either, but as men and women living in a complex and sophisticated culture. White’s sympathetically drawn portraits of real individuals not only provided information about status, stature, apparel, and weapons, but also something of personal character, not unlike contemporary English portraits. The images revealed elements of organized religion and agriculture, technologically proficient individuals who loved their children and recognized distinctions of rank, age, and gender. Nearly every one of White’s drawings is carefully labeled with a brief explanation of the information conveyed and an occasional Algonquian term. He delivers short treatises on hunting, fishing, eating, religion, burial rites, other ceremonies, and family and social groups.

Until the middle of the 18th century, historians assumed that the painter of these watercolors could not have been Governor John White, the man who took the helm of the so-called Lost Colony of Roanoke in 1587, largely because painters in Elizabethan England were viewed as professional craftsmen, not upper artisans. Later generations of historians came to understand that great social mobility characterized this period, elevating the importance of status and its outward symbols. Men served the queen in whatever capacity circumstance dictated. The use of gold and silver, the availability of pigments from apothecaries, the simplicity of the tools, and its neatness and cleanliness made limning—or painting in watercolors—the perfect activity for the English gentleman courtier.

Subsequent historians depicted White as a professional artist who found himself out of his depth as a leader—well-meaning in his intentions to establish a colony and to deal effectively but decently with the original inhabitants—but forced into making ruinous decisions. Recent reexamination of White’s life has suggested a different interpretation, which is presented in an exhibition assembled by the British Museum, entitled A New World: England’s First View of America and currently touring the United States (see the box at the end of this piece for details)—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Americans to see them, as they will not be shown again as a group during this generation.

The only clues to John White’s life and to his role on these voyages are his brief accounts of two of his trips, one letter of 1593 recounting his search for what is now called the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and the watercolors. Some, if not all, of the watercolors were probably made for Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth, or another patron either on his second voyage in 1585 or just after his return.

On that second voyage, White accompanied Thomas Harriot, Raleigh’s tutor in navigation, who was sent as a linguist, recorder, and surveyor to establish the land’s potential for farming and trade. White was to produce visual records and maps for the purpose of encouraging further investment in an English “plantation.” They anchored off the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina, exploring the coastline and building a small fort on Roanoke Island. On a brief excursion to the mainland, Harriot and White also recorded the people, their language, and way of life, most spectacularly in White’s series of nearly 20 watercolors of the people and villages of Pomeiooc, Secotan, and Roanoke, and in his drawings of local wildlife and plants.

While some of the color and detail have been lost from White’s original paintings, as they survived a fire and flooding in the 19th century before they were bought by the British Museum, the watercolors of fish shimmer with gold and silver of the living creatures. The birds’ feathers, and each toe of a turtle and segment of a plant, are depicted with loving detail. In the images of the people—all the body paint and tattoos, every bead, the details of hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry—the layout and construction of the villages of Secotan and Pomeiooc, the fields and crops, the charnel house where dead chiefs were honored, the ceremonies, all are rendered with careful attention to color and, most probably, with great accuracy. Of course, White would have been familiar with the prints and great paintings of his time: invariably he saw some poses through an artist’s eye, and there are parallels in his works to familiar images of the gods Mercury and Apollo. But other gestures are known to be particular to the villages he depicted, and the rich, earthy colors and realistic physiognomies of the people match written accounts.

White painted not just in the name of science. He, Raleigh, and the other investors in these voyages needed to attract further capital for the next stage in the planned colonization of the New World: the plantation of colonists who would settle there, establish trade with the local people, and also defend against Spanish, French, or Portuguese invasions. Potential venturers needed to see a land that was rich-soiled, abounding in wildlife, its people friendly and forthcoming. The longbows, status-conscious jewelry wearing, organized religion, fortified villages, and other settlements laid out in lanes and fields with a central “green,” were all reassuringly familiar.

A recent close examination of White’s coat of arms has revealed his gentle descent from a line of Cornish heiresses. Other research has determined that he married in London in 1566 and had at least two children, one of whom, Elinor, accompanied her father and husband to the New World, where her daughter, Virginia Dare, was born. The expedition relied for its money upon friends of Raleigh, barristers, and other prominent Londoners; it is likely that White took a share. 

In 1587 White, now governor, set out yet again, this time with 115 men, women, and children, to build the “Cittie of Raleigh” on the Chesapeake. But a gentleman, even a governor, did not command at sea, and the admiral of their expedition landed them again at Roanoke with insufficient supplies. White returned home to obtain assistance. The threat of Spanish invasion aborted the first relief expedition in 1588, and later relief ships were delayed. When White finally returned in 1590, the colonists had vanished. The mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains unsolved.

In the same year, Theodor de Bry published a volume with Harriot’s text describing the voyage of 1585, illustrated with engravings based on White’s images. Printed in four languages and distributed all over Europe, the Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia provided the people of the Old World with images of those of the New, haunting and memorable images not surpassed for more than 200 years. Now, 400 years later, visitors can see this vision of the New World for themselves.


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