John White is famous for the drawings he made in the late 1580s which record aspects of the North American littoral: its geography, its inhabitants, their dress, customs and dwellings, and the birds, plants and animals found there. Seventy-five of White’s drawings, along with navigational instruments, maps, books and relics of 16th-century exploration are on show in A New World, an exhibition at the British Museum until 17 June.

A few facts about White’s life can be gleaned from accounts of early voyages to America. He himself seems to have made five of them. He very probably sailed with the 1584 expedition promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh to reconnoitre sites for an English colony. He was certainly one of the party of five or six hundred men (about one hundred of them colonists) who went back in 1585. It was on that voyage that he gathered material for the American drawings. In 1587 White was made governor of the colony known as the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’. He had set out from Plymouth in May, with a party of colonists that included his daughter and her husband, to establish the settlement. They were installed at Roanoke in July and on 18 August his granddaughter Virginia was born. On 27 August White set off for England to get provisions. Those he left behind became the ‘Lost Colony’. Their fate is still unknown – White found no trace of them when he returned in 1590 (the need for ships to fight the Spanish Armada was responsible for the delay).

Raleigh’s attempts at colonisation followed hard on other ambitious voyages. Martin Frobisher thought he had found gold in the course of his 1576 search for the Northwest Passage. In 1578 he retraced his steps and brought home 1350 tons of ore from which ‘neither gold, silver nor any other metal could be drawn’. It was thrown away or used to repair roads. Mineral wealth was elusive. No Northwest Passage had been found. The only people who stood a chance of quick returns from such voyages were privateers. The appetite of investors doubtless faded. It was, as Raleigh’s half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert put it, difficult to ‘carry over colonies into remote countries upon private men’s purses’.

Someone, it seemed, needed to make a record of the good things that had been found and to give substance to travellers’ tales. Among the experts reckoned to be necessary to an expedition (geographers, apothecaries, miners, masons, carpenters and so forth) was someone who could ‘draw to life all strange birds, beasts, fishes, plants and herbs’, bring home specimens of them, and ‘draw the figures and shapes of men and women in their apparel as also of their manner of weapons in every place as you shall find them differing’. That is exactly what John White did.

On the face of it, his drawings are very like those produced centuries later when natural history and new scientific knowledge were often the primary purpose of voyages of exploration. The records Sydney Parkinson made for Joseph Banks, for example, seem very like those made by White – similar in subject-matter, and not very different in appearance and technique. But the modern reading of White’s album drawings – they were published with immense success in 1590 as illustrations (engraved by Theodor de Bry) to Thomas Harriot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia – suggests that what was made as a record was used as advertising. The Report was issued in German, Latin and French editions as well as in English. That Harriot and White’s book was intended to offer the promise of a good life explains some oddities. As a sort of appendix, after the anthropologically precise delineations of Algonquian men and women, one finds imaginative, even fanciful pictures of Picts. These figures – male and female, heavily tattooed, blue, naked and armed – were, it’s suggested, meant as a reminder that Britons, too, were once savages, and fiercer ones than the amiable Algonquians. The most richly tattooed and moustached of the male Picts holds a severed head. (In fact it was the English who beheaded Indians: in 1586 they decapitated the chief, Wingina, after a dispute, probably about the supply of food to the men left behind by the 1585 expedition.) White’s picture of a well-tended Roanoke cornfield, where staggered planting points to thoughtful and efficient gardening, suggested a peaceable peasantry. Similarly, the Indians’ religious ceremonies suggested a spiritual bent that would make conversion to Christianity attractive.

Even if there was a subtext, one does not doubt that White’s drawings give a true account. The slightly amateurish figures, far from making one question the accuracy of his pictures, suggest probity. While it is not clear how far White was working from life, how far from memory or notes and sketches, one is aware all the time of the pleasure he takes in something very close to direct observation. He notes dances, houses and jewellery, and the way food is eaten. He is intrigued by the way the women carried their children (piggyback style, but with only one leg secured in the crook of the elbow) and distinguishes hairstyles, tattoos, clothing and indications of status – like the small black bird worn above the ear by medicine men (it was, Harriot explains, a ‘badge of their office’). The fish are beautifully done (though the silver that once made scales glisten has, alas, turned black), the flowers and birds are pretty. But those drawings are of things which can still be found and re-examined. The appearance of the Roanoke Indians of White’s time is known only through his remarkable work. ‘The natives,’ his drawings seem to say, ‘were friendly.’

The meagre biographical information about White raises other questions. Eighteenth and 19th-century natural history painters seem to share an indistinct social territory with governesses, music masters and secretaries. White, although a painter, was also armigerous (his arms appear below those of Raleigh, his patron, on a copy of a grant of arms to the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’) and thus, patently, a gentleman. Painting in his case is a tool, an aid to anthropology, cartography, botany or zoology. A painter whose art was his single profession and whose works were ends in themselves might have felt obliged to show more fancy. Compare White’s Picts (who are, God knows, fancy enough) with another Pict drawing included in the Brief Report. That ‘young daughter of the Picts’ is attributed to Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. (He was a French Protestant exile who had arrived in England in the 1580s, but had earlier been sent to South America by the French king.) White’s most decorated Pict has heraldic animal heads on chest and knees, but it is still possible to think of them as tattoos. Le Moyne’s maiden is pretty, blonde, and decorated all over with botanical studies that could have come from a Book of Hours. Not all the skills of Japan could make the roses as pink, the leaves as green, the lilies as golden, the tulips, cornflowers and irises so much in their true colours, even on her pale skin.

A gentleman and a painter then, but more properly a ‘limner’, a painter of works in watercolour. The best-known limner was Nicholas Hilliard, who held a monopoly given by Queen Elizabeth ‘to make portraits . . . of our body and person in small compass in limning only’. Kim Sloan explains in the catalogue (British Museum, £25) that ‘Hilliard would never have described himself as a “painter”, which he felt was a mechanical art “for furnishing of houses . . . for tapestries, or building, or any other work”.’ Limning was ‘a thing apart . . . which excelleth all other painting whatsoever’.

Today White’s drawings are immensely important as unique anthropological records. From the first they were a much used visual reference, drawn on endlessly by illustrators. An engraving from John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Sumer Isles, published in 1624, is made up of scenes copied from the de Bry plates, with John Smith (and Pocahontas) popping up rather as Woody Allen does in Zelig. Many of the watercolour drawings are damaged: in the mid-19th century they were being held for sale by Sotheby’s, there was a fire, they got wet and took several weeks to dry. If they had been destroyed we would still have de Bry, but looking at painting and engraving together, we realise the degree to which an engraver’s conventions would have stood between us and a true account. This is one measure of White’s achievement.

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