History & Introduction

Ship carving during the early modern period reached its zenith during the seventeenth century, when the ships of the new European navies were decorated with a wealth of baroque carving, particularly on the stern and along the beak-head which terminated in an elaborate figurehead. Although these British carvings are recorded in contemporary paintings, drawings and models, actual examples are very scarce. Shipwrecks of this period from around the British Isles, generally do not survive in the miraculous state of those found in the Baltic. Exceptionally, an important group of carvings were recovered in 1992 from the Swan wrecked off Mull in 1653. They are now in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. This material includes a representation of the Prince of Wales’ feathers, indicating that the vessel was built for Charles I’s navy.

During the early part of the eighteenth century, the larger warships mostly carried lion figureheads. Two of these survive in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, two more are found outside pubs in Martlesham, Suffolk and Alfriston, Sussex.

The three major collections of British figureheads are held by the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark Trust and the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth. Naval figureheads, dating from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be viewed at Portsmouth and at Royal Museums Greenwich. Other individual examples survive, particularly in the older naval dockyards.

The Valhalla Collection on Tresco, Isles of Scilly, comprises mainly merchant figureheads from vessels wrecked on the islands from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The collection was assembled by the local landowner, Augustus Smith (1804-72), and was transferred to the National Maritime Museum by his family in lieu of death duties in 1979. A similar collection, now displayed next to Cutty Sark, was made by Sydney Cumbers (1875-1959). By the end of Cumbers’ life, figureheads were seen as picturesque relics of the last days of sail. The merchant figurehead flourished during the nineteenth century, initially in the form of an upright bust or half figure. The later clipper bow gave the figurehead a more forward-leaning stance and a dynamism that reflected the speed of the vessel.

These later figureheads are now at least a hundred years old. They were kept and collected because they were not being replaced. Although a few newer carvings have been produced for training vessels, replica vessels, yachts and restoration projects, authentic figureheads are a finite resource. The remaining ship carvings held in the collections of smaller museums, in private hands, or displayed in public places can be difficult to locate and study. It is hoped that this developing project will bring them to a wider audience.

The long-term preservation of the United Kingdom’s collection of surviving figureheads was beginning to cause concern by 2009. An article by Rear Admiral David Pulvertaft published in Mariner’s Mirror in February that year —Warship figureheads in the Royal Dockyards: Towards a national collection, indicated of the naval figureheads displayed in the Royal Dockyards in 1914, one-third had been lost. A few were destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War; most were kept out doors and simply rotted away. In response to these concerns, it was decided to compile a nationwide database of all surviving, complete, naval and merchant figureheads and stern carvings. This is a UK Maritime Collections Strategy project supervised by Royal Museums Greenwich. The database is intended to encourage the study of surviving figureheads and to facilitate the assessment of their quality, rarity and general importance. These are significant questions for public or voluntary bodies fund-raising to preserve these carvings for posterity.

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