Significance of John White

Looking with Clearer Vision: The Significance of John White's Watercolors by Lisa L. Heuvel
Wife of a chief of Pomeiooc,  John White c. 1585.

Wife of a chief of Pomeiooc, John White c. 1585, copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

The watercolor drawings of John White (c. 1540 – c. 1606) are widely recognized as priceless glimpses into the indigenous cultures that colonial English explorers encountered, cultures that had existed for thousands of years.  Each existing watercolor has an enduring quality:  The Algonquian-speaking men, women and children immortalized by White move through recognizable moments of daily life. White portrays them working, playing, and worshipping as people of grace and power. They are at ease in a landscape that is new to him, but an ancestral home to them. For museums and other culturally-based institutions, White’s images are indispensable visual evidence of the 16th- and early 17th-century mid-Atlantic indigenous world. Some, such as the warrior figure now identified as an Indianwerowance, or chief, are popular iconic images seen in posters, books, and other modern depictions. Given their rich content and the lack of comparable visual sources, they have come to symbolize the Contact Era Algonquian population of the Mid-Atlantic region. John White sketched the American Indian peoples he encountered through the lens of his English culture. There are levels of cross-cultural exchange suggested in the collaborative work he created with Thomas Hariot during their exploration of Carolina.  One tangible example appears in the watercolor drawing of an Indian woman and her daughter, inscribed, “A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc. | and her daughter of the age of .8. or. | .10. years.”  The girl, wearing beads,  carries a dressed English doll;  in the later de Bry engraving, she holds a European rattle and a similar doll. The 1590 Theodore de Bry edition contains Hariot’s 1588 text of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. In it, Thomas Hariot’s caption for the de Bry engraving of the mother and child notes that “they [Indians] are most delighted with the dolls and little bells brought over from England.”

Portrait of Arnaq and Nutaaq,  John White, c. 1585, copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Portrait of Arnaq and Nutaaq, John White, c. 1585, copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Although we can only speculate about White’s level of involvement and trust with the Indian people he portrayed, their open demeanor and his careful attention to detail suggest that White saw them holistically. Maybe it was the nature of his relationship with individuals he met, or perhaps the novelty of his efforts appealed to them. Although we cannot know if either reason or others apply, similar paintings of the Inuit are attributed to White. Some scholars theorize that John White took part as expedition artist in Martin Frobisher’s explorations of the Canadian Arctic from 1576 to 1578. There are stylistic similarities between the portrayals of both Indian cultures. They suggest a lowering of barriers between artist and model, as appears much later in the Indian Gallery of George Catlin (1796-1872), which records the Plains Indians and their way of life. Both White and Catlin make their subjects the focus, not their art. The timeless message of their paintings is this: Respect the people and Native cultures they portray. In White’s case, little remains of his life narrative. Ironically, we have no reciprocal image of him by his peers or the Native people who knew him, only imaginings. When White sailed from Roanoke Island in 1587 to secure supplies, did he stand at the ship’s railing looking back at his daughter and his grandchild, Virginia Dare? How did he look in England when told no ships could be spared for his return voyage? White finally made landfall at Roanoke Island in 1590, only to discover the disappearance of his family and fellow colonists. How would he have sketched the utter bleakness of that scene? Only his words remain to speak of it. But for scholars and others seeking historical clarity, the visual impact of John White’s extraordinary vision is within reach. Unfortunately, many of White’s watercolors probably were lost; but those that survive send silent messages of a people and a way of life. The engravings which Theodore de Bry made from now-lost works by White are embellished, stylized, and already a step removed from their human subjects.  Yet de Bry’s detailed black and white engravings illustrate the evolving study of America’s wonders by European artists and writers. Theodore de Bry’s 1590 edition of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia may have been his synthesis of Hariot and White’s Virginia findings with newer discoveries. Literary scholar Peter Stallybrass suggests that de Bry’s work contained botanical information from French botanist Carolus Clusius on North American plants.  In the 1590 Latin edition of de Bry’s work now owned by The Mariners’ Museum, engravings based on White’s drawings spring from the page in vivid European hues much brighter than White’s originals. This change heralds the growing appropriation of America in European thought and action during the 17th century. In their efforts to record a natural history of Carolina, Thomas Hariot and John White encouraged an eager mother country waiting across the Atlantic with a  “shopping list” of commodities to fill her needs. But one person’s frontier is another person’s home. The glimpses White offers into Indian lifeways say so, over four centuries later. These Algonquian people were fully engaged in developed societies when White sketched them. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, descendants and ancestors, like all people. This was their land. John White sent that message to his peers and across time. That is his greatest contribution. The British Museum’s collection of John White watercolors was exhibited in “A New World: England’s First View of America” at Jamestown Settlement, Williamsburg, Virginia, July 15-October 15, 2008. Lisa Heuvel received a master’s degree in American Studies from the College of William and Mary in 2005 and is completing doctoral coursework there in the School of Education, where her research interests include multiculturalism and teacher development.  Heuvel’s thesis “Early Attempts of English Mineral Exploration in North America: The Jamestown Colony” was published in 2007.  She was assistant scholar for the 2008 Beyond Jamestown Teachers’ Institute, held by the Virginia Indian Heritage Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.