Ships’ figureheads have a long history embodying religion, symbolism and superstition…
These amazing objects were mounted on the bows of sailing ships for thousands of years. They were believed to embody the spirit of the vessel they were on. Figureheads offered crew protection from harsh seas and safety on their journeys home.
The Egyptians mounted figures of holy birds to provide protection and vision. The Phoenicians featured horse heads symbolising swiftness. The Romans and Greeks carved wolf or boar heads representing ferocity. All often mounted on, or carved directly onto, the most forward part of the ship’s bow.
Naval galleons, whose figureheads were often carved animals or heraldic devices, were the basis of England’s rise as a great maritime power…
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the lion was the standard figurehead for lower-ranking Royal Navy warships. It symbolised power, speed and aggression. There are just two British ones that have survived. One is at the National Maritime Museum in London.
Lion figureheads went out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. They were replaced by full-length human forms. As many sailors couldn’t read, the ships’ figureheads often represented the name of the ship.
Although ship design eventually made figureheads redundant, there are still around 200 from the Royal Navy that have survived since their sea-service retirement. They are admired by all that see them.
Nip & Tuck…
The superstitions of seamen meant that figureheads held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it. Fourteen figureheads have, over the last two years, had a new ‘crew’ of protectors. Three specialist conservation teams in London, Devon and Cornwall, led by Orbis Conservation, have painstakingly been loving and restoring 14 wooden figureheads to their former glory. These figureheads are now officially out of retirement! They had been rescued from the Royal Navy’s ships before they were scrapped.
Led by Plymouth City Council, the figurehead conservation project is the most significant of its kind in a generation. It not only secures the future of the Devonport figureheads, but identifies The Box as a centre of excellence and innovation for the preservation and display of maritime heritage, with one of the largest collections of figureheads in the UK.
Now rescued and back in Plymouth, we hear that one of the most badly damaged of the figureheads was HMS Topaz. A three-quarter-length female bust carved in 1858. Her ship was responsible for removing two of the Easter Island statues that are now in the British Museum’s collection.
This wasn’t a small restoration for any of the figureheads and the talented conservation teams were dealing with vast objects! The largest of the 14 wooden figureheads to be rescued was HMS Royal William. “King Billy” is a carving of William IV which was completed in 1833. It stands at 13ft tall and in total weighs two–tonne!
After years of water damage, there was an abundance of rot and decay throughout the 14. The figureheads had to undergo some rather complex analysis and restoration; it was no mean feat. Artists and restorers have scraped away layers of paint, dug out rot and make-shift repairs.
The display will see the figureheads being airborne! This obviously required teams of conservators and structural engineers collaborating. They had to develop innovative solutions in pursuit of the fabulous end goal. They have come up with complex but elegant structural mounts, and each figurehead will be secured in place with just three cables. This will create the effect of a fleet of carvings, simply and elegantly floating above visitors.
It’s true to say that they had many challenges to overcome. Yet The Box is a pioneer for conservation and innovation and they soon became a new ‘safe home’. Not only for the figureheads, but for Plymouth’s important national collections and archives.
The ‘heads’ are in safe ‘hands’!
The Box certainly won’t only be home to these maritime gems! It will be a space for new galleries, a striking elevated archive with learning facilities. Hence the excitement within the city.
Although the Plymouth City Museum was probably one of the most loved buildings by generations; it was closed in 2016. However, this was not without good reason. As a result of the closure there was a number of pop up, touring displays around the city. This kept the cities history offer in place in preparation for The Box.
The Box is a £40 million complex. It completely transforms, extends and combines the original City Museum and Library buildings and St. Luke’s Church.
As a result, this new building will form the largest museum and art gallery space in the South West of England. It opens it’s doors in Spring 2020 to form part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations.
Incredibly, these figureheads weigh over 20 tonnes collectively! These substantial retired icons form part of Britain’s maritime history, and now have a new home. These amazing figureheads will be on public display from Spring 2020. Suspended within the main atrium; in a huge sweep that appears to sail across the glazed façade.
This will be a brand new museum. It will have innovation and preservation at the core; for these sensational maritime oldies and so much more!