A New World: England’s First View of America

This exhibition presented an extraordinary group of watercolors and drawings by John White, the Elizabethan gentleman-artist most responsible for shaping England’s first view of America and its inhabitants. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a patent from Queen Elizabeth I to finance and settle a colony in “Virginia” (on the coast of present-day North Carolina). A year later, he sent an expedition that included John White and the renowned scientist Thomas Harriot. Together they produced drawings, maps, and written records of what they found. Upon arrival, the Englishmen explored the coastline and built a small fort on the island of Roanoke. White depicted the native people and their way of life in a series of spectacular watercolors. He also produced stunning drawings of local animals and plants, portraying for the first time many species native to the New World.

These drawings of the region’s Algonquian Indians and local flora and fauna constitute the only surviving original visual record of England’s first settlement venture in North America. A New World: England’s First View of America featured nearly one hundred works, including all of White’s drawings of the Algonquian Indians, his maps and charts, watercolors of the Inuit and of North American and West Indian plants and animals, depictions of ancient Britons, and associated works by his contemporaries. The exhibition also included maps, manuscripts, and rare books related to early European voyages of exploration to America from the Center’s collections and from other libraries across Yale University.

When John White returned from “Virginia” a year late, he and Raleigh made plans for a permanent colony at the “Cittie of Raleigh” on the Chesapeake. The expedition set off in 1587 but landed at Roanoke with insufficient supplies. White was sent home to obtain assistance; when he returned in 1590 the colonists had disappeared and the legend of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke was born.

John White’s drawings have been vitally important in forming the way in which Europe and the Old World viewed America and its inhabitants. This exhibition provided a rare opportunity to revisit the “Lost Colony” and to catch a glimpse of the land and people of North America at the moment when Europeans encountered the continent’s native inhabitants for the first time.


British Museum:
March 15–June 17, 2007

North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh:
October 20, 2007–January 13, 2008

Yale Center for British Art:
March 6–June 1, 2008

Jamestown Settlement, Virginia:
July 15–October 15, 2008

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


A New World: England’s First View of America was organized by the British Museum and curated by Kim Sloan, Francis Finlay Curator of the Enlightenment Gallery and Curator of British Drawings and Watercolours Before 1880 at the British Museum. The organizing curator at the Center was Elisabeth Fairman, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. Generous support was provided by the American Friends of the British Museum and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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A New World: England’s First View of America installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole