John White’s watercolours and De Bry’s engravings
The failed colony at Roanoke in 1585 was a disastrous mission yet it brought about some interesting observations on Indian life which would be useful again in the future. Nothing is more intriguing as a finding from this mission than the sets of watercolours on Indian life by John White and the resultant engravings made by De Bry which provide for a striking comparison. They also include much detail although that can appear to be also the imagination of both artists but on the whole the pictures are a valuable document of Indian life at a time when such things were completely unknown and were rather strange.
Comparison 1; Old Indian Man
John White’s watercolour of the Old Indian Man is quite arresting. The man is quite imposing in his noble and dignified bend and the attire is also of some significance. What is particularly striking is the man’s attire which is a sort of cloak with frills and the background is also completely bare signifying that the attention is placed completely upon the man in this case. Naturally enough the skin is coloured brown and the man’s demeanour is as if he is making a particular gesture to something although that is slightly unclear.
On comparison, De Bry’s engraving is rather more pompous and grand. First of all he does not leave the man alone but inserts a background of houses and a settlement at the back of the engraving. This seems to mean that the Indian is chief of some area and he also has a haughty de rigeur which is absent from White’s rather simple water colour. Other aspects which are different in De Bry’s painting include the rich attire with which the man is dressed, especially in the head although the ‘winter dresse’ is basically the same. The intensity of De Bray’s engraving is also rather striking and provides for a very interesting contrast with White’s simple work.
Comparison 2: Indian Charnal House
This subject was undoubtedly extremely interesting both for White as well as De Bray who put some energy into the proceedings. White presents a satrk picture of bodies lined up in the charnal houses with a certain rhythmic symmetry and the figures which dot the place also have some intriguing features. One can also observe the innovative system of the crematorium with the fire being lit underneath the tray of bodies and then obviously burning them into oblivion. There is a lot of detail in the wooden structure which can be closely observed and the way the bodies are lined up indicates a certain rhythmic symmetry too. White portrays the fire as being rather far away from the actual charnal house but the intention is obviously there and one cannot really escape the shadow of death which is intrinsically present.
In “The Tombe of their Werovvans or Cheiff Lordes” which is the comparison engraving, De Bry is rather more direct and stark in his portrayal of the burning bodies. He inserts a figure in the lower part of the painting which almost looks like a Grim Reaper inspecting his charges before their death and that is quite striking and revealing. The structure of the charnal house is also quite detailed, much more than White’s and there is a certain three dimensional level about everything. The bodies are also more detailed and much more stark in their physical expression, it is almost like they are wailing or howling as they are waiting to be burnt. The dark corners in black and similar effects lend a stark mystery to this engraving which is rather spooky and De Bray certainly succeeded if he wanted to shock. The differences between White’s more pensive watercolour could not be more striking.
Comparison 3: Indians round a fire
White’s watercolour is intriguing and interesting in the sense that it contains several aspects of Indian life which we perhaps take for granted sometimes. The smoke tends to obscure some of the Indians who are engaged in fun games and their expressions show a certain amount of happiness and relaxation. White seemed to be a keen observer of such customs and traditions as he brings a certain authenticity and feel to his watercolours. The Indians are also unashamedly naked or attired with very little clothing but that is all part and parcel of the scenery which is quite interesting and intriguing.
De Bray’s engraving is again on a grander scale than White’s although it does not contain any significant differences other than added figures at the left hand side of the engraving. However yet again while White’s watercolour places the Indians without any sort of background, De Bry includes a foreground of vegetation as well as a settlement in the background. The fire is also much more pronounced in De Bry’s engraving, rising almost to the top of the picture making it all quite a dramatic scene. The expressions and shapes of the Indians around the fire are also much more detailed although again, one does suspect that a certain amount of imagination is going on here. Still De Bry’s engraving is a powerful one when compared to White’s overt simplicity.
Conclusion: similar scenes yet different takes
The Roanoke Expedition of 1585 may have been a disaster where settlement and human life was concerned but it did bring about some very interesting observations of Indian life which were never seen or documented before. One could say that John White provided the background for such an exploration which was different in every respects and his watercolours are strikingly accurate in their simplicity. On the other hand, de Bray seems to be more interested in creating grand images of proceedings and adding his own personal touch to everything but this does work wonders especially in the painting of the charnel house. Both mediums undoubtedly have their own appeal and also their own particular nuances and both White and de Bry used them to the best of their abilities. It could be that De Bry entered into far greater detail than White due to the fact that his engravings had to accompany narrative stories which were probably embellished with certain facets to make them more interesting for readers.
What is certain however is that both White and de Bry provided an interesting and rather authentic artistic commentary on Indian life in those days which should not be overlooked. It shows the Indians living in peace and harmony accompanied by their traditions and customs without the interference of the white man. This is undoubtedly a fine portrayal by two great artists.