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John White likely did this study of a male Atlantic loggerhead on a stop in the West Indies en route to "Virginia" in 1585. "Their heads, feet, and tails look very ugly, like those of a venomous serpent," wrote Thomas Harriot, the expedition's scientist, of New World tortoises. "Nevertheless they are very good to eat, as are their eggs." (By John White, Watercolor, c. 1585. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All Rights Reserved)

Sketching the Earliest Views of the New World

The watercolors that John White produced in 1585 gave England its first startling glimpse of America

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White's paintings and the text accompanying them (written by Thomas Harriot, a scientist also on the 1585 voyage) are virtually all that remain of that time and place. After presenting his paintings in England to an unknown patron, possibly Raleigh or the queen, White returned to Roanoke in 1587 as governor, bringing with him more than a hundred men, women and children. Their supplies quickly ran out, and White, leaving members of his own family on the island, returned to England for assistance. But English relations with the great sea power Spain had deteriorated, and as the Armada threatened, he was unable to get back to Roanoke until 1590. By then, the English settlers had vanished, and the mystery of the "Lost Colony" was born. It's still unclear whether the settlers died or moved south to assimilate with a friendly native village. At any rate, because of rough seas, the approaching hurricane season and damage to his ship, White was able to search for the colonists for only about a day and never learned the fate of his daughter, Elinor, his son-in-law, Ananias Dare, and his granddaughter, Virginia, the first English child born in North America.

Such hardships, British Museum curator Kim Sloan writes in the show's catalog, lead one to wonder "what drove this man even to begin, never mind persist in, an enterprise that lost him his family, his wealth and very nearly his life." White's own last years are also lost to history: the final record of his life is a letter from 1593 to Richard Hakluyt (an English author who wrote about voyages to America), in which White sums up his last trip—"as lucklesse to many, as sinister to my selfe."

Today some of the plants and animals White painted, including a glaring loggerhead turtle, are threatened. Even the watercolors themselves are in precarious condition, which is why the British Museum displays them only once every few decades. In the mid-19th century they sustained heavy water damage in a Sotheby's auction house fire. Chemical changes in the silver pigments have turned them black, and other colors are mere shadows of what they once were.

The originals were engraved and copied countless times, and versions showed up in everything from costume books to encyclopedias of insects. The paintings of Indians became so entrenched in the English consciousness that they were difficult to displace. Generations of British historians used White's illustrations to describe Native Americans, even those from other regions. Later painters, including the 18th-century natural history artist Mark Catesby, modeled their works on versions of White's watercolors.

Britain did not establish a permanent colony until Jamestown in 1607, nearly two decades after White left America for the last time. Jamestown was a settlement of businessmen: there was no gentleman-artist on hand to immortalize the native people there. In fact, the next major set of American Indian portraits would not appear until George Catlin painted the peoples of the Great Plains more than 200 years later.

Magazine staff writer Abigail Tucker reported on rare color photographs from the Korean War in the November issue.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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