(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Who William Buelow Gould was to begin with will never be known. Gould himself has no idea who he really was, other than that he was the product of a nameless man who died making love to a nameless woman who died in the act of childbirth. Young William is brought up in the poorhouse until apprenticed to a stonemason. Unsuited to the heavy work, he runs away to London and begins an odyssey that will take him across the world, finally arriving at the Tasmanian penal colony of Sarah Island.

Indeed, Gould never set out to be a painter at all; all he wanted to do was survive. As luck would have it, in America he falls in with Jean-Babeuf Audubon, with whom he embarks on an abortive business venture. Audubon, not unlike his namesake John James, is a painter of birds, and from him Gould gets the first inkling of what it might mean to be an artist. However, Gould himself has no particular interest in painting until he reaches a situation where claiming to be an artist will conveniently get him out of trouble. At this point, Gould assumes the identity of an artist, helped by having worked for a few months decorating porcelain, and he manages to fake his way as such until, having arrived at Sarah Island, he finds himself employed by the prison doctor.

Tobias Lempriere is desperate to become a fellow of the Royal Society, and he believes that Gould’s skills will help him to secure this coveted position by having Gould paint the fish of Macquarie Harbor. At first, Gould struggles to fulfil Lempriere’s demands; he is more used to painting copies of old master paintings. However, almost in spite of himself, Gould begins to paint in earnest, and he struggles with the fact that he is no longer faking his skills, as he has faked so much throughout his life, but is in fact an artist.

However, the reader learns Gould’s story through words rather than through pictures. Gould is, or so he claims, writing his life story while imprisoned in a cell that is flooded by the tide twice a day, and...

(The entire section is 814 words.)