One of the early maps of North America in Yale’s collection contains a mistake surprising to modern viewers: a mysterious “South Sea” connecting the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains with the British trading meccas of China and India. While obviously inaccurate, the image reflects the excitement, exaggeration and endless possibility typical of European artists seeking access to the New World.
The map is part of the British Museum’s traveling exhibition “A New World: England’s First View of America,” on display at the Yale Center for British Art beginning March 6. The show focuses on the watercolors and drawings of the flora, fauna and human inhabitants of costal North Carolina produced by John White on his 1585 voyage to the area he called Virginia. As the first depictions of the subjects by a European and the dominant imagery of the continent in Europe for the two centuries following White’s journey, the works were enormously influential in shaping attitudes toward the New World.
White’s vision of the New World is both fantastic and pragmatic. He draws brilliantly colored animals with excruciating scientific detail. He records the medical properties and harvesting practices of alien plants. And, to top it all off, this treatment extends to the images of the native peoples he encounters, whose social hierarchies, village organization and hunting and fishing practices he studied carefully.
This balance between imagination and practicality stems from the fact that White’s watercolors were not merely the musings of an artistic traveler but also propaganda geared toward attracting British settlers to an new continent. By sympathetically depicting the region and its inhabitants and comparing them favorably to other cultures such as the Florida Indians, Inuits, Turks, Greeks and ancient Britons, White hoped to quell European fear of the strangeness of the New World and encourage settlers to move to the American colonies.
“White shows a theater of the world that the North Carolinian Algonquians fit into,” said the Yale show’s organizing curator Elisabeth Fairman, curator of rare books and manuscripts for the BAC.
Kim Sloan, curator of British Drawings and Watercolours before 1880 at the British Museum, who is also serving as curator for this particular exhibit, said White’s surprisingly barbaric description of England’s own ancestors was an attempt to convince his countrymen of the potential to civilize the people of North America, an attitude that prevailed throughout Europe long after White’s death.
“The ancient Britons were included in order to show that we were once as savage as the people of North America, far more savage in fact,” Sloan said. “There was a sense of potential to convert to Christianity, that ‘we’re already halfway there.’ ”
The scope of White’s impact on European perceptions is explored in diverse materials from Yale, the New York Public Library and New York’s Morgan Museum that supplement White’s drawings. These woodcuts, maps, globes, memoirs and collections of engravings provide variety in material and perspective, a context for White’s work and proof of the pervasiveness of White’s imagery. An engraving in a book of John Smith’s travels features the famous colonist superimposed over copies of White’s scenes, and similar replications are present in the recordings of the explorations of Sir Francis Drake.
Besides raising questions of historical impact, the exhibition provides a varied and colorful visual depiction of the first European contact with Native Americans. The detailed, simple, engaging watercolors are rarely displayed because of their delicacy and the potential for fading — Sloan said this would probably be the last time they will be publicly exhibited in her lifetime.
The exhibition is also unique in its relation to the BAC’s concurrent shows. When juxtaposed with “Pearls to Pyramids: British Visual Culture and the Levant, 1600-1830” and “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, 1830-1925” the museum provides a variety of perspectives on British imperialism and encounters with “the other” over a variety of times and continents.
“A New World” kicks off Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. with the lecture “John White, Richard Hakluyt and the Creation of American Icons” by University of Southern California professor Peter Mancall.