A New World

England’s first view of America

15 March – 17 June 2007                                
Room 5                       
Admission charge
Supported by The Annenberg Foundation

John White, a gentleman and artist, was largely responsible for shaping England’s first view of America, though few are familiar with his name. In the 1580s, White sailed with the earliest expeditions to Virginia and produced a series of amazing watercolours that documented the complex and sophisticated culture of the North Carolina Algonquian Indians and the local flora and fauna. These drawings are the only surviving original visual record of this early period of America’s history.

All of White’s drawings are in the British Museum’s collection and will go on public display as a group for the first time in forty years. Loans of portraits, maps and navigational instruments from the National Portrait Gallery, British Library and National Maritime Museum among others will be used to set the scene at the Elizabethan Court.

The 16th century was an age of voyage and discovery for Europeans. The English were relative latecomers to exploration but under Elizabeth I a concerted effort was encouraged by men such as John Dee. John White may have been associated with Martin Frobisher's search for the Northwest Passage and was the earliest English artist to draw the Inuit they encountered in Baffin Island. A few years later, White was on the first of several voyages Sir Walter Raleigh sent to the land he named 'Virginia' after his queen (present day North Carolina). Raleigh hoped to find minerals and other valuable commodities, a good safe harbour from which to harass Spanish ships and to establish a permanent foothold for England in America.

After a fact-finding expedition in 1584, Raleigh sent a second expedition a year later which included his tutor in navigation, Thomas Harriot, and John White. Harriot was sent as a linguist, recorder and surveyor to establish the land’s potential for farming and trade. White was sent to produce visual records and maps of what they found in order to encourage further investment and colonists for an English ‘plantation’. We know very little about John White but this exhibition reveals new facts about his life and explores his work as an artist in relation to his position in society as a gentleman. The 1585 voyage anchored off the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina, exploring the coastline and building a small fort on the island of Roanoke.  Harriot and White also recorded the people, their language and way of life - most spectacularly in White's series of nearly twenty watercolours of the people and villages of Pomeiooc, Secotan and Roanoke and in his drawings of local wildlife and plants.

In 1585, John White returned from 'Virginia' with visions of Paradise, the perfect place to plant the English in the New World soil. White and Raleigh continued their preparations for a permanent colony of one hundred and fifteen men, women and children at the 'Cittie of Raleigh' on the Chesapeake and John White was appointed their Governor with twelve assistants. The expedition set off in 1587 but landed again at Roanoke with insufficient supplies. White was sent home to obtain assistance but because of the Spanish Armada his relief ships were not allowed to sail. When he finally returned in 1590, the colonists had disappeared and the legend of the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke was born.

John White's drawings have been vitally important in forming the way that Europe viewed America and its inhabitants. As America prepares to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent settlement of Jamestown in May 2007, this exhibition provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit the earlier ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke through White’s drawings and to catch a glimpse of the land and people as they encountered Europeans for the first time.

For further information or images please contact Benjamin Ward on 020 7936 1297, bward@brunswickgroup.com  or Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522, hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

  • An accompanying Book ‘A New World: England’s first view of America’ is published by The British Museum Press from February 2007. Price £25.
  • An extensive public programme of lectures, films, performances and workshops will accompany the exhibition. For further information please contact the press office.
  • After its run at the British Museum, the exhibition will tour to several venues in America.