First English paintings of American Indians shown for first time in 50 years

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One of Britain's greatest secret treasures -- a collection of the first English paintings of North America -- go on public display at the British Museum today for the first time in almost 50 years. The watercolours, painted in 1585 during an unsuccessful mission to establish England's first colony in America, are so fragile and sensitive to light that they can only be shown once a generation. Painted just 20 years after the death of Michelangelo and more than 30 years before the Mayflower sailed, the survival of the 70 watercolours -- almost certainly shown to Elizabeth I and handled by her -- is little short of miraculous. Not only did they survive a perilous transatlantic return journey but a fire in the 19th century, and then they were left in water for three weeks. The naive pictures were painted by John White, a gentleman and amateur artist at the court of Elizabeth, who was sent on several expeditions by Sir Walter Raleigh to help establish a colony in Virginia -- now North Carolina -- and to record the lives of the people and the flora and fauna that he found. Instead of the wild savages that Europeans had expected, White's pictures of the Algonquin Indians show a sophisticated and settled society with villages, stockades, cultivated fields and jewellery.

Related Links

  • In pictures: First English paintings of American Indians (7 slides)
  • 'A New World' (exhibition website)

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