WHITE, JOHN, English artist and the first to draw Eskimos in Canada; b. c. 1540–50; fl. 1593 in County Cork, Ireland.
White was perhaps of Cornish stock, though his family and early career have not been traced with any certainty. But he is most likely to be identified with the John White who was a member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London in 1580. He was intimately connected with Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonizing expeditions in North Carolina and Virginia between 1584 and 1590, first as artist, later (1587–90) as governor of the new colony. The results of his artistic activities in Raleigh’s Virginia, which have survived, are confined to a set of skilful and convincing water-colour drawings, in the British Museum, of Indians and the fauna and flora of this coastal area.
Yet these almost certainly were not his first records of the New World. Though his name does not appear in the documents there is strong presumptive evidence that he sailed with Frobisher to South Baffin Island on his second voyage in 1577. This is supplied by a pen and water-colour drawing of a fight between Eskimos and Englishmen contained in an album of early 17th-century copies of White’s drawings, acquired by Sir Hans Sloane from White’s descendant a century later. The scene depicted is so authentic in detail that it may be presumed that White himself was an eye-witness. The theory is supported by the likely identification of this incident with one described by Dionise Settle and George Best in their accounts of the voyage. The Englishmen in their pinnace being attacked by Eskimos with bows and arrows, and attacking them in turn with muskets, the Baffin Islanders in kayaks, their tents in the background above the bay: all are mentioned in the accounts of the fight and illustrated in the drawing. Original drawings by White of an Eskimo man, and of a woman and her baby (which are found in the set of his drawings together with his Indians of Virginia) almost certainly portray the prisoners known to have been taken by Frobisher in 1577. Their costume is without doubt that of Baffin Islanders.
White may well have provided the original drawings from which engravings were made (or intended) for a publication licensed by the Stationers’ Company to John Allde on 30 Jan. 1578, as “A discription of the purtrayture and Shape of those strange kinde of people whiche the worthie master Martin Fourbosier, brought into England in Anno 1576 and 1577.” No copy of this book, if published, is known, but French and German editions of Settle’s account of Frobisher’s second voyage, published in 1578 and 1580, each include woodcuts, close in detail to each other, which were probably taken from a print in the lost publication. Both certainly include details of a man and woman Eskimo with her baby and of a kayaker, which definitely connect them with the known portraits by White. At least one other drawing in the same album of copies, the back view of the Eskimo man, indicates that White drew more portraits than the two original Eskimo subjects which have survived. Judging from his later Virginia material, it is likely that he made a much wider record of Eskimo life which, published or unpublished, must have played its part in extending the knowledge of this remote part of Canada among those most concerned with the possibilities of English expansion overseas.
Roanoke voyages (Quinn), I. Kaj Birket-Smith, “The earliest Eskimo portraits,” Folk, I (1959), 5–14. E. Croft-Murray and P. H. Hulton, Catalogue of British drawings (London, British Museum, 1960– ), I: XVI & XVII centuries, 26–30. P. H. Hulton, “John White’s drawings of Eskimos,” Beaver, outfit 292 (summer, 1961), 16–20. John White’s American drawings, 1577–1590, ed. P. H. Hulton and D. B. Quinn (2v., London and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963), plates 62, 63, 84, 85, 147.