John White

(British Museum)

John White is an unclear man: his precise dates, his education, his reasons for sailing to America are not known to us. But we do have a collection of his 75 watercolour images, painted around the time in the 1580s that White was accompanying Raleigh on voyages to the new, found land.

Some of the watercolours are themselves unclear: in the mid 19th C, the album containing them was in a warehouse fire, then languished all wet for weeks. So some of the colours have doubled onto facing pages, and over time, metallic pigment has faded.

Plan of a fortified encampment at Mosquetal (Tallaboa Bay), Puerto Rico
(British Library)

You can see where the red square has reprinted onto the other side, and how the column of figures has replicated.

But the images are wonderful: bright and characterful pictures of the land, the inhabitants, the produce. You can browse the whole proper catalogue of them in the British Museum’s collection. (In 2007 the museum hosted the exhibition, A New World: England’s first view of America, and there’s a book by Kim Sloan of the same name.)

There’s another sense in which John White’s pictures, though distinctive and now famous, are unclear: he might not have done them. There is a whole family of different sets of images on similar themes, recreated by the maker, or copied from other sets, or from lost originals. Thomas Harriot in 1590 got Theodor de Bry to engrave a set of images for A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants. 

It’s easy to tell that these de Bry engravings are based on White’s paintings.

‘The manner of their fishing’, ‘A Cannow’, watercolour by John White (British Museum)

But there are other copies, too. Around 1700, Hans Sloane got an artist to copy the pictures from a volume of White’s work that White’s descendents would not sell to him, into a set of pictures called the ‘Sloane copies’ or ‘Sloane volume’, now in the British Library. About ten years later, Sloane did manage to purchase the White volume he wanted. But it seems that both the copies and the ‘originals’ incorporate details from yet another set, now lost. 

Anyway, why am I interested in White’s drawings? Because, as the tourist tee-shirts complain, he goes all the way to America and all he comes back with is one lousy picture of a shark, as in the pic above. It’s a hammerhead, swimming happily in the shallows where ‘The manner of their fishing’ is shown. He also shows jellyfish, dorado, soldier fish, grouper, puffer and more. But he doesn’t depict any other sharks. De Bry features a second picture of the same hammerhead, being brought in a basket towards the barbecue. White has only the one.

But it’s a start.

The brovvyllinge of their fishe ouer the flame, from Harriot, an edition in the John Carter Brown Library