Special Friends; A Series of Exhibits in London Explores the Historical Ties between England and America, for Better and for Worse

By Brownell, Ginanne | Newsweek International, March 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

Special Friends; A Series of Exhibits in London Explores the Historical Ties between England and America, for Better and for Worse


Brownell, Ginanne, Newsweek International


Byline: Ginanne Brownell (With Esther Bintliff in London)

When Englishman John White set forth, armed with a sketchbook, to help found the colony of Virginia in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh implored him, "Drawe to liefe all strange birds beastes fishes plantes hearbes ... the figures and shapes of men and women in their apparel." And so he did. White's impressively detailed watercolor images became the first anthropological depictions of Native Americans, singularly shaping European views of the New World for centuries to come. They include in-depth scenes of Algonquin Indians hunting, fishing, praying and dancing, as well as portraits of individuals. In one, a jovial chief, adorned with beads, elaborate tattoos and a woven wrap, holds a tall bow; in another, a man with feather earrings sits on a mat across from a woman preparing meat. White even portrayed what has become one of the foremost traditions of American life: a barbecue grill.

White's works have rarely been seen in recent times. They are exceedingly fragile, and were almost lost in a 19th-century fire. But they are currently making a rare and enthralling appearance at the British Museum, which owns them, in "A New World: England's First View of America" (through June 17, then traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina). Though exhibition curator Kim Sloan calls it "serendipity" that the exhibition coincides with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown--England's first successful settlement in the New World--"A New World" helps to explore the history of the "special relationship" between the two nations. Indeed, the show is just one of a handful on view in London--or coming soon--that demonstrate how inextricably the two are linked, not only through such positive or benign events as the voyages of exploration but also through their mutual embrace of slavery.

The British Museum show is easily the most far-reaching. It provides a vivid history of England's exploration of the Americas under Elizabeth I, as well as of White's personal tale. Before Jamestown, the artist had been the governor of the Roanoke Colony, which was plundered and abandoned during one of his trips back to England for supplies. The exhibit surmises what happened to the colonists: presumably they were killed by the Native Americans White had depicted so affectionately years before. Visitors can also see how other artists constantly reinterpreted White's drawings of Native Americans, so that they morphed over the years from gentle souls to savage warriors. "I am sure White knew the significance of his works for the people of England," says Sloan. "For Elizabethan times their trips to the New World was akin to a voyage to the moon."

Other shows are more narrowly focused. "Journey to the New World," at London's Museum in Docklands (through May 13), looks at how London bankers and merchants raised the money, ships and people to supply America. The exhibition features pieces from the Docklands' collections and recent Jamestown excavations as well, including coins and pottery. Also on show: items brought from the Old World, from lace gloves and jewelry boxes to several striking pairs of children's shoes. Because a constant supply of labor was needed to develop the colony, indentured servitude was introduced. Along with orphans and street children, poor families often sent their children on the ships for a chance at better life in a new land. …

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