Shanghaied from the Savannah waterfront when he was eight years old, William O. Golding chronicled his travels through a series of maritime drawings that he created near the end of his life while a patient at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Savannah. Between 1932 and 1939 he executed around sixty drawings, created from his memories of the ships he sailed and the ports of call he visited around the globe. Golding’s drawings reveal details of his remarkable life, as do the only two extant letters of this African American self-taught artist.
William O. Golding was likely born on January 15, 1874. His future was determined on July 15, 1882. In a letter he wrote in 1932 to Margaret Stiles, the recreation director at the hospital and a member of the Savannah Art Club, he recalled the day that he and his cousin were strolling along the wharf in Savannah. According to Golding, the two youngsters passed the ship Wandering Jew and overheard Captain William Potter ask his wife, Polly, to select one of the boys. She chose Golding, who was invited aboard; by the time he wanted to leave, the ship was already out at sea. As he emerged from below deck, he saw the lighthouse on Tybee Island blinking in the distance. This was the beginning of Golding’s odyssey. He did not see his home again until a brief visit in 1904.
When he was in his fifties, Golding, whose nickname was “Deep Sea,” returned permanently to Savannah, as declining health forced him to remain on land. During the 1930s he was a patient intermittently at the U.S. Marine Hospital, where he received treatment for a chronic lung condition. (Records from the hospital, which accepted seamen, veterans, and government employees, state that he was born on January 15, 1874.) Stiles befriended Golding during his time at the hospital and encouraged him to draw. She supplied the paper, pencils, and crayons that he used to create the works of art inspired by his peripatetic life. Stiles also bought some of his drawings and arranged for the sale of others.
There are scanty details of the forty-nine years that Golding spent at sea. By his own account, he sailed the seven seas on a variety of vessels—merchant ships, whalers, and yachts. His duties aboard ship and the length of time he was associated with each vessel remain unknown. Although he recounted an arduous working life and complained that he never made a fortune, he basked in the experiences he gained. When he was fifty-nine, Golding admitted in a letter that he still sailed in his dreams and met his cronies there to swap yarns…
Information concerning Golding’s final years is also scarce. He appears as a resident of Savannah with his wife, Josephine, in the 1940 city directory. He died on August 25, 1943.
Karen Towers Klacsmann, Morris Museum of Art, Published 3/3/2008
www.georgiaencyclopedia.org accessed April 25, 2011