The first extensive exhibition of the self-taught artist’s work at Telfair Museums, Savannah, is filled with fact and fantasy inspired by his unconventional life at sea.
The sailing route around Cape Horn, the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of Chile, holds a formidable reputation with mariners. The artist William O. Golding, who died in 1943 at the age of 69, claimed to have sailed it 23 times during his nearly 50 years at sea. Cape Horn, a pencil and crayon drawing Golding made in 1933, transforms this rocky passage into a fantasy town, a refuge in heavy waters. A sailing vessel appears on the horizon behind a steam-powered ship shepherded by a school of spouting whales. A fairy tale-like post office allows sailors to broadcast their fearless expeditions back home. To Golding, the sea represented mystery and adventure. He was smitten.
The first extensive museum survey of his work, ‘The Art of William O. Golding: Hard Knocks, Hardships and Lots of Experience’ at Telfair Museums in Savannah tells a tale like no other. An African American born during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, Golding was kidnapped between the ages of six and eight and taken to be a cabin boy aboard the Wandering Jew. After a decade of unforgiving seafaring, he enlisted in the US Navy before working on merchant ships and luxury steam yachts. Only when his health deteriorated, in 1932, did he return to Savannah, where he received treatment for chronic bronchitis at the US Marine Hospital. What we know of his biography primarily comes from that time, through two letters written to a volunteer at the hospital. In that correspondence, as in this exhibition, he spins a long, colourful yarn that interweaves fact and fantasy.
Between 1930 and 1939, Golding (he also signed his name Golden) produced an estimated 130 drawings, 72 of which are in this exhibition. He had no formal training nor reference images, continuously returning to the same compositions, sometimes years after the original. His depictions of the USS Constellation from 1933 and 1939 evince his reverence for the sloop-of-war, which operated to suppress the African slave trade. The earlier version shows the vessel from a distance receiving a hero’s welcome on American shores; the later image, cropped more closely, reveals the lookouts on the yardarms. Despite having an apparently meticulous memory, Golding sacrificed factual details in favour of a composite image of the ships and ports that made him.
Although his works can be grouped into the three basic categories of maritime art – seascapes, harbour scenes and ship portraits – his voice is distinctive. In contrast to the precise portrayals by renowned nautical artists such as Cornelisz Vroom or Thomas Dutton, Golding’s ships are animated, buzzing with excitement. He seemed to disregard his unlawful abduction, and the backbreaking work that followed, in favour of a childlike awe of the places to which he’d travelled. In Whaler Petrel Chasing Whales in the Artic [sic] Ocean (1933), Golding shifts the focus from the vessel to the crew: the harpooner stands ready at the bow; the rowers give chase to the cresting grey whales. As in nearly all his drawings, the artist has included his personal crest: a beaming sun in the form of a compass rose – a figure on navigational tools that marks the cardinal directions, leading the way home. Despite being stranded at the Marine Hospital, Golding’s mind remained on the place that defined him: the sea.
Though there are no known photographs of Golding, Wm. O. Golden (1936) acts as a self-portrait while also upending the concept. The artist depicts a steam yacht christened with his own name. The ship’s figurehead, the carved wooden sculpture that guides the way and represents its power, has curly hair and a dark skin tone. The ship is Golding. Golding is the ship.