Flora and fauna of the New World

Adventurer John White painted the first images the English saw of plant and animal life in the Americas

William L. Sharfman
May 24, 2007
To us, the watercolors of John White, a 16th century painter and traveler, may seem rather ordinary. There's a pineapple, a flamingo, an iguana -- things many people now see every day. But when White painted these images in 1585, they represented England's first glimpse of the flora and fauna of a mysterious body of land known as the Americas.White made no fewer than five voyages to the New World between 1584 and 1590, under the aegis of Sir Walter Raleigh. The watercolors, all owned by the British Museum, were last exhibited in the 1960s. Some of the 75 pieces, done in black lead, ink, and watercolor, unfortunately suffered water and fire damage during a 19th century fire.Now, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, the British Museum is again exhibiting White's watercolors. Curators of the exhibit maintain that White's images aided both...
ngs many people now see every day. But when White painted these images in 1585, they represented England's first glimpse of the flora and fauna of a mysterious body of land known as the Americas.White made no fewer than five voyages to the New World between 1584 and 1590, under the aegis of Sir Walter Raleigh. The watercolors, all owned by the British Museum, were last exhibited in the 1960s. Some of the 75 pieces, done in black lead, ink, and watercolor, unfortunately suffered water and fire damage during a 19th century fire.Now, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, the British Museum is again exhibiting White's watercolors. Curators of the exhibit maintain that White's images aided both naturalists' catalogs and the classification of species, and, along with the writings of Thomas Harriot, likely helped future voyagers recognize what was useful and edible. It's also interesting to imagine whether John White's paintings helped "sell" the New World to the English, encouraging them to settle or invest. To this day John White's identity is a mystery - it's unknown where he was born (though his family was Cornish), or where he died (he was last heard from in a letter from Ireland in 1593, in which he makes reference to his five voyages to America). The most concrete biographical detail is that his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born in America.An exhibition of the watercolors of John White is on display at the British Museum in London until June 17, 2007, after which it will travel to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh and the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.Click here to start the slide show.William L. Sharfman mail@the-scientist.comEditor's note (May 29): When originally posted, the caption for slide #5 was replaced by the caption for slide #3. The captions are now correct, and we regret the error.All slides are courtesy of the British Museum.