ouglas Tilden was born May 1st, 1860 to William Peregrine Tilden and Catherine Hecox Tilden. His father was a doctor. Douglas caught Scarlett Fever when he was four years old and became completely deaf. His parents wanted him to have an education, so they sent him away to the California School for the Deaf, which was then located in Berkley. The school moved several times before finally ending up in Fremont where it’s located today. After he finished school, Douglas accepted a teaching position.
Throughout his eight year teaching at the school, Douglas made many figures out of clay. When some of his work came to the attention of the faculty at the California School for the Deaf, they took up a collection to send him to New York and Paris to learn about sculpture. In 1887, Douglas spent eight weeks in New York and about five years in paris studying under several famous sculptors, but mostly Paul Chopin who was also deaf. While in Paris, Douglas won many sculpture design contests and had his work installed all over the world. He returned triumphantly to the California School for the Deaf in 1893.
In 1896, Douglas got married to Elizabeth Delano Cole. Elizabeth was the deaf adopted daughter of a local entrepreneur, and renowned for her beauty. They had two children, a daughter named Gladys, and a son named Willoughby Lee. Their marriage was tempestuous, and ultimately ended in an extremely unfriendly divorce. Elizabeth did serve as the model for an angel in Douglas’ sculpture titled “Native Son Monument”, now located in San Francisco.
When he got married, Douglas left the California School for the Deaf to pursue sculpture full time. The faculty at the school was upset by this. They felt that because they had paid for his schooling in Paris, he owed them by either staying a teacher at the school or reimbursing them for the cost of his education. Douglas had thought that his education had been a gift, and he felt he shouldn’t have to pay them back. The California School for the Deaf ultimately confiscated one of his sculptures, “The Bear Hunt”, as payment for his tuition. This sculpture is displayed on the campus today. At this time, San Francisco was spending tons of money on public works of art to be displayed around town. Because the Mayor of San Francisco, James Phelan, greatly admired Douglas’ work, he was chosen to do many of the sculptures that were comissioned, including “The Baseball Player” in Golden Gate Park, “Mechanics Monument” in Lownsdale Square, and “Admission Day” and “California Volunteers” on Market Street.
Many of Douglas’s sculptures depict young athlethic men, and because of his failed relationship with his wife, many people have surmised that he may have been homosexual. There has never been any evidence found to back up this theory, even among the extensive personal papers Douglas left behind after his death. Though Douglas was most likely not gay, some of his sculputres, especially the sculpture called “The Football Players” on the UC Berkley campus have become adopted symbols of the gay pride movement.
After his divorce and James Phelan’s promotion to State Senator, Douglas tried to seek employment with the Californai School for the Deaf again, but fell prey to the tide of Oralism sweeping the nation: The California School for the Deaf no longer employed deaf teachers. Instead, Douglas moved to Hollywood and began to sculpt dinosaurs and other extinct animals for historical and educational films. The income from these films allowed him to set up a studio and take students, and he also became very active as an advocate for the deaf community.
By 1930, even the small amount of work Douglas was getting in Hollywood had dried up. He moved back to Berkley and filed for welfare. Douglas died in Berkley on August 4th, 1934. His daughter Gladys donated all of his old paperwork, correspondence, and photos to UC Berkley. Because of Douglas’ habit of making small bronze sculptures for friends, and also as thank you gifts, many of his smaller works are still being discoverd by the general public today.