Friday, March 14, 2008
Organized by the British Museum in London, “A New World: England’s First View of America,” at the Yale Center for British Art, presents maps, sketches and watercolors by the Elizabethan artist John White, about 20 of which constitute the only surviving visual record of England’s first settlement in North America. These images — of the Algonquian Indians and local flora and fauna — are immensely fragile and may be exhibited only once every 30 to 40 years, making this enchanting exhibition an event of historical importance as well.
White is a mysterious figure. We don’t know where or when he was born, who his father was, or even when he died. What historians do know is that in 1585 he was a member of an expedition to create a permanent foothold for England in America. The expedition landed on Roanoke Island and began construction of a small fortified settlement, later exploring the surrounding islands and the mainland in longboats. During these explorations White produced drawings and maps of what he saw, perhaps to satisfy curiosity back home about the New World.
In 1587 he returned to Roanoke Island as the governor of a new colony, along with 115 brave English colonists. But insufficient supplies forced him to return immediately to England, leaving the colonists behind, along with his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, the first English child born in the New World. When he returned to the island three years later, he found all the colonists had vanished. So began the legend of the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.”