- Historic Sites
First Images Of The New World
“Lost Colony” Governor John White’s Early Paintings Colored European Views for Centuries
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
In late 16th-century London, a group of curious Elizabethan courtiers gathered around a sheaf of watercolors and murmured in wonder. A chief Herowans wife of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years 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.