A rare glimpse of England's first sight of the New World

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The Independent Online

They are rare glimpses of the New World captured by one of the first Englishmen to encounter the American Native Indians.

Seventy-five watercolours depicting a ground-breaking colony in North Carolina are to be brought out of the British Museum stores for the first time in a generation for a new exhibition next year. The works, which are more than 400 years old, are so vulnerable to light damage they have not been displayed in their entirety since 1964.

The show, entitled A New World: England's First View of America, will introduce new British audiences to a story which is a famous part of American folklore - the tale of the first efforts to found an English colony in North America before the more successful attempts at Jamestown and Plymouth in Virginia.

In the late 16th century, Sir Walter Raleigh, the great adventurer, was granted a patent by Elizabeth I to colonise America and advance parties were despatched in his name - although without Raleigh himself. Among the party which landed at Roanoke in the 1580s under Sir Richard Grenville and Ralph Lane was John White, a figure about whom little is known other than he was an accomplished painter.

He painted the Native Indians at work and play, including details of their crops and fishing, and returned to the Elizabethan Court to circulate the drawings as an advertisement for the new colony. Kim Sloan, a British Museum curator, said: "He was the original estate agent."

More than 100 men, women and children went out to begin a new life in America but life proved tough and they eventually gave up and returned home.

A second party followed with White as governor. His daughter gave birth in Roanoke to a daughter, Virginia Dare, who was the first child of English parents born in the New World. "In American she's iconic like Pocohantas," Dr Sloan said.

With the colony in need of supplies, White returned to Britain but was then delayed as the Spanish Armada was about to attack.

By the time he returned, the colony, including his daughter and grand-daughter, had disappeared. The group became known as the "lost colony". However, the paintings survive, if somewhat damaged by fire and water in the 19th century, just before the British Museum acquired them.

Dr Sloan said: "It's a miracle they survived at all. And it's the only chance for this generation to see them all."

The exhibition, which will run from March until June next year, was part of a raft of announcements made yesterday by the British Museum in London at the launch of its biennial review.

Other shows include Power and Taboo: Sacred Objects from the Eastern Pacific, and Voice of Bengal, both opening this month.