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Painting the New World

Tuesday 24 April 2012 at 14:35

In 1585 the Englishman John White, governor of one of the very first North American colonies, made a series of exquisite watercolour sketches of the native Algonkin people alongside whom the settlers would try to live. Benjamin Breen explores the significance of the sketches and their link to the mystery of what became known as the “Lost Colony”.

'The Flyer', a Secotan Indian man painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

“As lucklesse to many, as sinister to myselfe.” Such was the Elizabethan colonist John White’s gloomy assessment of his tenure as the first governor of Britain’s fledgling colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia. As White lived out his final days on an Irish plantation in 1593, he struggled to come to terms with his ambivalent legacy in the “Newfound Worlde.” Just eight years earlier, White had set out for North America as part of an expedition lead by a fiery-tempered courtier named Sir Richard Grenville. This voyage was not without its challenges – White recalled laconically that in a battle with Spanish mariners he was “wounded twise in the head, once with a sword, and another time with a pike, and hurt also in the side of the buttoke with a shot.” Yet in this time White also witnessed natural marvels, helped build a new colony, and even celebrated the birth of his now-famous granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English/Christian parentage to be born on American soil. Ultimately, however, White’s ambitions ended in catastrophe, with the mysterious disappearance of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children who comprised the Roanoke colony – a group that included his daughter and granddaughter.

In the centuries since White’s death, his story has diverged in an interesting way. Generations of schoolchildren raised in the United States can probably recall reading about the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke in textbooks. In these simplified accounts, White and his fellow colonists typically figure as doomed but visionary pioneers in a larger narrative of British-American exceptionalism.

Among professional historians, White is equally famous, but for rather different reasons. In recent histories of colonial British America, it is John White the artist, rather than John White the colonial governor, who takes center stage. This is because White was a watercolor painter of extraordinary talent whose works number among the most remarkable depictions of early modern indigenous Americans ever created.

To be sure, many other European contemporaries of White offered up visual depictions of native Americans. Readers of André Thevet’s early account of Brazil Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Paris, 1557), for instance, could expect to be treated to renderings of Tupí Indians harvesting fruit, singing songs (complete with musical notation recorded by Thevet) and even munching casually on barbequed human thighs and buttocks.

Engraving of Tupí Indians harvesting cashew fruits in André Thevet's Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique; (Paris, 1557)

Yet White’s illustrations stood out among those of his peers. Rather than working via woodblock printing or engraving, White produced paintings in vivid watercolors. This allowed him to achieve a level of lifelike detail which printed illustrations couldn’t hope to match. One of the most striking examples of White’s eye for detail is found in his tender depiction of an Algonquian Indian mother with her daughter.

John White, "A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years." (1585) British Museum, London.

In 1585, one of White’s companions in Virginia, a natural philosopher and inventor named Thomas Hariot, remarked that the indigenous children he encountered in America “greatlye delighted with puppets and babes which are broughte oute of England.” White’s painting actually offers a direct visual proof of this observation: in the hands of the woman’s child, one can spot a tiny female doll wearing Elizabethan dress.

As the historian Joyce Chaplin notes in her book Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003), this image was later recreated by the Dutch printmaker Theodore de Bry, who used White’s watercolors to create engravings for Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). De Bry’s depiction shows the Indian girl holding not only “an English doll in Elizabethan clothing,” but “an armillary sphere,” which served as “an instructional and decorative representation of the globe and heavens” (Chaplin 36).

Engraving by Theodore de Bry after John White's watercolour, from Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590)

White also had a remarkable ability for “zooming out” from a scene to create an imagined isometric perspective. His painting of an Algonquian village stands out as one of the most detailed depictions of indigenous American village life to survive from the sixteenth century.

Village of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina, by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

As the detail of the dancing circle in the lower right of this image suggests, White seems to have had a particular interest in Algonquian religious ceremonies. Another painting by White along similar lines gives a precious glimpse of pre-contact American Indian religious practice and daily life:

Ceremony of Secotan warriors in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

What, then, was White’s final legacy? In a narrative first printed in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages, White described his return to Virginia in 1590 in search of the colonists he had left at Roanoke (he had returned to England three years earlier in efforts to obtain “supplies, and other necessities”). His account evokes the haunted landscape of a ghost story, and its eerie details have made it part of American folklore ever since. On the 17th of August, White recalled, three ships under his command reached Roanoke, where they “found no man, nor signe of any that had been there lately.” The next evening, one of White’s sailors spied “a fire through the woods” and the men “sounded a Trumpet, but no answer could we heare.” The light of the next daybreak revealed that this was “nothing but the grasse, and some rotten trees burning.”

Finally, however, White found evidence of the colonists’ wherabouts. In a tree, he discovered “three faire Roman Letters carved C. R. O.”: this was a pre-arranged maker which White understood “to signifie the place where I should find them”: Croatan. White’s suspicion was confirmed with the discovery of a scene that is now almost mythical:

We found no signe of distresse; then we went to a place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found them all taken downe, and the place strongly inclosed with a high Palizado [i.e. a palisade of wooden stakes], very Fortlike; and in one of the chiefe Posts carved in fayre capitall Letters C R O A T A N, without any signe of distresse, and many barres of Iron… and such like heavie things throwne here and there, overgrowne with grass and weeds…

Interestingly, White’s account here connects his two identities as governor and painter. He remarks that his men “found diverse Chests which had been hidden and digged up againe” surrounding the palisade. Among these chests, White was surprised to find objects which he knew “to be my owne”: “books” and “pictures” he had created in the years before, now “scattered up and downe…[and] spoyled.”

In the end, White was unable to follow up on these strange clues: storms forced the expedition’s ships to turn back before reaching Croatan, and he returned to Britain with the mystery unresolved. The ultimate fate of the Roanoke colonists continues to be debated. Some have conjectured that White’s fellow colonists may have opted to join a local Algonquian Indian tribe and adapt themselves to the very different (and rather more effective) Amerindian methods of contending with the harsh American landscape.

It is unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened – but if White’s daughter and granddaughter really did become incorporated into an Indian tribe, it would have made a strange sort of sense. Few sixteenth century Europeans looked upon indigenous Americans with anything other than a jaundiced and prejudiced eye. Yet White’s sensitive and humane portrayals of daily life among the Algonquians tell a different story, and suggest that his own stance toward the native peoples he encountered in the New World was rather more complex. In White’s sensitive depiction of the Algonquian woman and her child holding a European doll, perhaps we can discern a foreshadowing of the hybrid Euro-American fate of his own daughter and grandchild. The intertwined tales of the failed colony White governed, the family he raised, and the artworks he created offer one of the earliest examples of the mingling of cultures that would define the history of the Americas in the centuries to come.

Watercolour by John White of Fort Elizabeth in Guyanilla Bay, Puerto Rico, where the colonists were based before going on to found the Ranoake Colony in North Carolina.


Further reading:

  • Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization(University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
  • Joyce Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003)
  • Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country (Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • Kim Sloan et al, A New World: England’s first view of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)




Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow based in Lisbon, Portugal where he is conducting research toward a dissertation on the circulation of medicinal drugs and natural knowledge in the Portuguese and British empires. He blogs about premodern history and visual culture at resobscura.blogspot.com.


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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/24/painting-the-new-world/


Rae Bourbon

Monday 23 April 2012 at 15:53




During the Pansy Craze of 1930-1933 (mainly in Manhattan), gay clubs and performers, known as “pansy performers”, experienced a huge surge in underground popularity. In 1932, Rae Bourbon was working full-time as a female impersonator at such clubs as Jimmy’s Back Yard in Hollywood and Tait’s in San Francisco. At the latter, in May 1933, police raided his “Boys Will Be Girls” review during a live radio broadcast. In the later 30s and early 40s he headlined at the Rendezvous in Los Angeles and starred in his own revue, “Don’t Call Me Madam.” Throughout the 50s and 60s Bourbon entertained at hundreds of clubs throughout the U.S. and released dozens of albums, certainly the most prolific female impersonator to have done the latter. His appearances are still fondly remembered by many who saw him when he toured in big and small towns all over the country, providing many isolated Gay men with a glimpse of the loose-knit urban Gay community of the pre-Stonewall era. His comedy was at once highbrow and lowbrow, overtly gay and covertly subversive. Despite his influence on gays, he remained vague about his own sexuality. There is evidence that he had relationships with both men and women, was married twice, and fathered at least one son. Bourbon excelled at generating numerous conflicting stories about himself. (From Wikipedia)

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/23/rae-bourbon/


A Burlesque Translation of Homer (1797)

Saturday 21 April 2012 at 15:55


A Burlesque Translation of Homer, by Thomas Bridges; 1797; G.G. and J.Robinson, London

Homer’s Iliad set to bawdy verse by Thomas Bridges (c.1710-c.1775), originally published in 1762 under the pseudonym Caustic Barebones. The work achieved some popularity, and was reprinted several times, the last in 1797. In 1765 Bridges wrote The Battle of the Genii, a burlesque of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was once attributed to Francis Grose. Bridges’ only novel was The Adventures of a Bank-Note, published in 1770.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/21/a-burlesque-translation-of-homer-1797/


Dazzle Ships

Thursday 19 April 2012 at 13:47

Dazzle camouflage (also known as Razzle Dazzle or Dazzle painting) was a military camouflage paint scheme used on ships, extensively during World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II. The idea is credited to the artist Norman Wilkinson who was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve when he had the idea in 1917. After the Allied Navies failed to develop effective means to disguise ships in all weathers, the dazzle technique was employed, not in order to conceal the ship, but rather to make it difficult for the enemy to estimate its type, size, speed and direction of travel. After seeing a canon painted in dazzle camouflage trundling through the streets of Paris, Picasso is reported to have taken credit for the innovation which seemed to him a quintessentially Cubist technique.

(All images via Wikimedia Commons)

HMS Argus (1918)


USS Suboney (1918)


HMS Badsworth (1941)


HMS Furious (1918)


HMS Nairana (1917)


HMS Kildangan (1918)


HMS London (1918)


HMS Pegasus (1917)


RMS Olympic (c.1918) - The identical sister ship to RMS Titanic


HMS Rocksand (c.1918)


S.S. Alloway (1918)


USS Siboney (1918)


HMS Underwing (c.1918)


USS Charles S Sperry (1944)


USS Leviathan (1918)


USS Orizaba (1918)


USS Smith (1944)


USS St. George (c.1944)


USS West Apaum (1918)


USS West Mahomet (1918)


USS Wilhelmina (1918)


USS Nebraska (1918)













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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/19/dazzle-ships/


Farmer plays a song with ‘hand-farts’ (1933)

Tuesday 17 April 2012 at 21:20



Universal Newsreel from 1933 showing Cecil H. Dill, a farmer from Traverse Coty, Michigan, demonstrating his ability to render popular melodies by pressing his hands together. After the performance, which seems to be of Yankee Doodle, Dill modestly tells how he discovered his unusual talent while staring rather intensely into the camera.

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Note this film is in the public domain in the US, but may not be in other jurisdictions. Please check its status in your jurisdiction before re-using.










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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/17/farmer-plays-a-song-with-hand-farts-1933/


Around the World on the Phonograph (1888)

Monday 16 April 2012 at 10:52



Thought to be the oldest surviving recording of Thomas Edison’s voice, made in October 1888 he describes an imagined trip “around the world on the phonograph,” by Cunard steamer from New York City to Liverpool, through Europe and Asia, noting specific ships, railroads, cities, and points of interest en route. In the following decades Edison’s phonograph invention would itself spread “around the world”.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/16/around-the-world-on-the-phonograph-1888/


Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation (1887)

Sunday 15 April 2012 at 20:20


Geometrical Psychology, or, The Science of Representation an Abstract of the Theories and Diagrams of B. W. Betts, by Louisa S. Cook; 1887; G. Redway, London.

Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts details Benjamin Bett’s remarkable attempts to mathematically model human consciousness through geometric forms. From the Introduction:

The symbolic forms which Mr. Betts has evolved through his system of Representation resemble, when developed in two dimensions, conventionalised but very scientifically and beautifully conventionalised leaf-outlines. When in more than two dimensions they approximate to the forms of flowers and crystals. …. The fact that he has accidentally portrayed plant-forms when he was studying human evolution is an assurance to Mr. Betts of the fitness of the symbols he has developed, as it affords presumptive evidence that the laws he is studying intuitively admit of universal application.


See the diagrams here in our Images section.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/15/geometrical-psychology-or-the-science-of-representation-1887/


B. W. Betts’ Geometrical Psychology

Sunday 15 April 2012 at 20:20

Diagrams from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details New Zealander Benjamin Bett’s remarkable attempts to mathematically model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms. From the Introduction:

The symbolic forms which Mr. Betts has evolved through his system of Representation resemble, when developed in two dimensions, conventionalised but very scientifically and beautifully conventionalised leaf-outlines. When in more than two dimensions they approximate to the forms of flowers and crystals. …. The fact that he has accidentally portrayed plant-forms when he was studying human evolution is an assurance to Mr. Betts of the fitness of the symbols he has developed, as it affords presumptive evidence that the laws he is studying intuitively admit of universal application.


The full book can be viewed in our Texts section here.













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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/15/b-w-betts-geometrical-psychology/


Aino Folktales (1888)

Friday 13 April 2012 at 15:29


Aino Folk-tales, by B.H. Chamberlain; 1888; Folk-lore Society, London.

The Ainu (アイヌ?), also called Aynu, Aino (アイノ), and in historical texts Ezo (蝦夷), are a group of indigenous people living in Japan and Russia – thought to originate from the Jōmon-jin people whom many think might have been the first to settle North America. Historically, they spoke the Ainu language and related varieties and lived in Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, and much of Sakhalin. A medieval Chinese historian referred to the Ainu region as the “Land of the Hairy Men” on account of the abundance of their facial hair compared to the typical inhabitant of Japan.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/13/aino-folktales-1888/


Welsh Fairytales and Other Stories (1894)

Thursday 12 April 2012 at 18:01


Welsh Fairytales and Other Stories, collected and edited by P.H. Emerson; 1894; D. Nutt, London.

Collection of stories told to the author during his stay in Anglesey during the winter of 1891-2, mostly involving fairies in some form or other, and either the finding or losing of money.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/04/12/welsh-fairytales-and-other-stories-1894/