Hardly anyone knows the name of John White, the artistic spirit of this exhibition. But he has significant claims to be the earliest Englishman employed in three different divisions of art: outdoor watercolour, ethnographical illustration and the painting of North America’s topography and natural history. At the same time, he was governor of an ill-fated colony, and grandfather of the first English child ever to be born across the Atlantic.

Elizabethan attempts to colonise America’s eastern seaboard were underwritten by investors hoping for gigantic profits, though in the event they all made disastrous losses. Probes into Canada to establish mining colonies returned with nothing but “fool’s gold”. Further south, sponsored and cheered on by Sir Walter Raleigh (though he never went there in person) the first “Virginia” was at Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina, and it was no more successful.

In 1587, after two earlier attempts had failed, a body of “planters” landed at Roanoke under John White’s governorship, in the hope of forming a self-sustaining community. They included his son-in-law and pregnant daughter, who soon gave birth to a granddaughter, naturally christened Virginia. But the natives were clumsily provoked into hostility by elements in White’s party, and he himself quickly returned to England to fetch reinforcements. With the breaking crisis of the Spanish Armada the following year, he was unable to do so until 1590, by which time no trace of the colonists could be found. White never learned what happened to his family, and the Roanoke colony was not revived.

White had first crossed the Atlantic with a preliminary men-only party in 1585. His companions were not just soldiers and sailors, but gentlemen and artisans with a variety of skills. White, at approximately the age of 40, was the designated artist and mapmaker. It is unclear if he had any formal qualifications in these disciplines, since hardly any hard information has been discovered about his early life, although the fact that he went back to the colony as its governor two years later suggests an educated and well-connected man.

More can be inferred from the watercolour paintings – most probably made during the 1585 reconnaissance – that survived with other related work in a single album that was eventually acquired in a water-damaged state by the British Museum. These are all handsomely displayed in this exhibition, curated by the museum’s Kim Sloan, and they show that he was a highly developed draughtsman and fine colourist, despite some loss and degredation in the brightness of his tints, especially where he has used small amounts of gold and silver.

As an illustrator of natural history, White made attentive and detailed records of the insects, plants, birds, reptiles and fish (though, oddly, no mammals) that he encountered either en route, or at and around Roanaoke. As a mapmaker, while you would not place him on a level with his contemporary Christopher Saxton, the great cartographer who mapped the counties of England, White shows real assurance in abstracting and organising data from surveys and instrument-readings in a way that is not only lucid but highly accurate. When his map of the coast surrounding Roanoke is laid across a satellite photograph of the same area, few differences are found.

Finally, White was a sympathetic, apparently objective portraitist, and he provided his age with its first realistic images of native Americans, and their way of life. His most famous portrait, endlessly reproduced or adapted over the centuries, is that of an Algonquian werowance, or tribal chief, posing confidently with his necklaces, body-paint, distinctive hairstyle (the right side shaved, so as not to impeded his bowstring) and longbow. Other portraits are of women, children, a shaman, “one of their Religious men” and “an aged man in his winter garment”. In a portrait of a mother and her eight-year-old daughter, the little girl is seen clutching a doll, evidently given to her by the settlers. This is the only evidence in White’s work of interaction between the Europeans and natives. All his efforts were towards revealing the local culture itself, with topographical views of native villages, a ceremonial charnel house, a ritual dance, views of cooking-fires and equipment and an illustration of the people’s farming skills.

The paintings are so good, and satisfying in themselves, that it is easy and tempting to read them as value-free observations, pure reportage. The temptation has to be checked, for White’s work had definite purposes, both commercial and political. Everything in the album was put there with a single intention: to advertise the Roanoke settlement as an attractive place in which to live and (perhaps more importantly) to invest.

The natives strike poses adopted from conventional European portraiture, in a way calculated to suggest that “they” are a people not too unlike “us”. In layout, their settlements look agreeably like English villages, and their favourite weapon is a longbow, so important in England’s own military tradition. Algonquian agriculture is rational and planned, and their food (unlike contemporary accounts of the Inuit) is seen to be thoroughly cooked on fires made from plentiful supplies of local firewood. Their minimal clothing emphasises the warm climate – an important consideration for anyone who had heard about the gelid conditions for settlers further north. The plants and creatures that White painted serve the same purposes, demonstrating natural beauty, but also showing the area’s fecundity in nutritional and medicinal resources.

This publicising aspect of White’s album was amplified when the printmaker and publisher Theodor De Bry borrowed from it for the engraved illustrations in the first volume of his highly popular Voyages series – an account of the 1585 expedition written by another member of the company, Thomas Harriot. But for all its tendentiousness, White’s work is not dishonest. He gracefully negotiates between colonial aspirations and an attractive humanist impulse that recognises people from other cultures as being worthy of respect. For White, coloniser though he was, the “savage” world was not gruesomely other, but akin. In a man who lost his family to that world, the belief does him considerable credit.

‘A New World: England’s first view of America’ is at the British Museum until 17 June. Tel +44 (0)20 7323 8299

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