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 John White  (1550 - 1593)

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Lived/Active: Virginia / United Kingdom      Known for: New World nature studies, Indian figure

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John White was a watercolorist from England who came to Roanoke, Virginia (present-day eastern North Carolina)  in the 1580s with English expeditions.  He was the first Englishman we know of, who painted in America and is also associated with a much-recorded historical event known as the Lost Colony.  As an expedition artist, he did sketches that are somewhat free in style but show a scientific sense of documentation.

Little is known about his life other than his work with the expeditions, but it is thought he may also have accompanied Sir Martin Frobisher to Canada in 1577, and Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to the Carolina Outer Banks in 1584.

On the 1585 expedition, he traveled to North Carolina with a group sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh to explore the possibility of an English settlement at Roanoke.  White completed numerous detailed watercolor drawings of the flora, fauna and Indian people of the area; about 60 of these drawings are still in existence.  It has been said that his depictions of the Indians, clothed in deer and rabbit skins, set the pictorial image standard for those people for several centuries.  He also made maps of the Coast, which were much used by geographers.  White returned to England with Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

Sir Walter Raleigh named White governor and principal organizer for the Roanoke Colony.  In 1587, the artist and a group of immigrants, including White's daughter and her husband, the future parents of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America, sailed to Virginia.

Later that year, White returned to England for additional supplies, and because England and Spain were at war, he did not return to North Carolina until 1590.  But he could not find a trace of his family or the other settlers, and because of the weather, was not able to look for them on Croatoan Island, where he thought the colonists had gone.  In American history, they became known as the "Lost Colony."  A letter, written by White to accompany an account of events that he wrote and sent to his publisher, remains. Nothing is known of his later life except that writing this 1593 letter from Ireland indicates he was in Newtowne in Kylmore.  It is assumed that he died in Ireland however his death date is not known.  Some sources record 1593, the year of the letter but according to latest research it is more likely he died in 1606. 

Twenty-three of White's watercolors of 1585-86 were engraved by Theodore de Bry as illustrations for his America (1590).  The original, larger, set owned by the British Museum consists mainly of drawings of Indians, reptiles, fish, birds and some plants.  The absence of mammals and the scarcity of plants has led to speculation as to the completeness of the set but it is probable that the absence of drawings means they didn't survive and not that they weren't made.

Source: Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Artists
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Peter Hastings Falk (ed.), Who Was Who in American Art


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