Ships Figureheads - Proud at the Prow

Ships Figureheads - Proud at the Prow

Figurehead of young queen victoria

Anyone who loves the ocean and the romance of the golden age of sail cannot fail to be enthralled by the magnificence of figureheads.

For those who are unsure what a figurehead is, it is a carved figure, usually of a woman but not always, and not always human, on the bow of a ship.

Many figureheads were lost to the sea, and some are now in a state of disrepair. Some however have been beautifully preserved or restored for us to enjoy.

I have admired figureheads for many years, but a recent visit to Trinity Marine Salvage in Devon to buy some old reclaimed teak for our boat build, rekindled my interest as they had some fine examples. To behold the beauty and craftsmanship in real life is to see the skill and time that has been lavished on their creation. Modern ships have nothing so extravagant and unique. Figureheads certainly belong to a romantic golden age of sailboats.

Ancient History

Figureheads as we know them may belong to recent history. But for as long as man could sail we have decorated the bows of our boats and ships for either aesthetic or spiritual reasons. Many early cultures decorated their vessels with eyes to help the boat see its way through the water. In Malta the brightly coloured Luzzu boats continue this tradition.

 Maltese Luzzu boat painted yellow and blue with eyes on the bow

Think of the Viking longboats and those magnificent dragons carved on the bow. The Vikings carved dragons onto the bow of their ‘Dragonboats’ both to ward off evil spirits at sea, but also to instill fear into their enemies. Seriously, who wouldn’t be terrified seeing a giant carved dragon and a boatful of Northmen and shieldmaidens travelling toward them along your local waterway!

Black and white photo of a Viking longship under sail

17th Century

Fast forward a few hundred years,  and in the 17th century,  new larger naval fleets meant power for the monarch. A great way of displaying this power was to have elaborate figureheads carved on the sailing ships. Many of these were political in nature at this time. For example, the ‘Sovereign of the Seas’ launched in 1637 was the flagship of Charles I’s navy, and as this model from savyboat.com shows, the figurehead depicts King Edgar on horseback trampling on the monarchs of Scotland and Wales!

Figurehead of sovereign of the seas ship - a model of a ship from 1637

By the late 1600s, figureheads were widely used by both warships and merchant ships. In contrast to the navy ships, the merchants would choose figureheads depicting animals, family members, and historical or literary figures.

18th and 19th Century

During the 18th and 19th centuries, figurehead production was thriving, and around 150 companies were actively producing quality figureheads. It was considered a professional trade, and women carvers were also employed.

A famous figurehead which can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London is that of ‘Nannie’ - the figurehead of the 1869 Tea Clipper ‘Cutty Sark’. 

Nannie, figurehead of the Cutty Sark

Nannie Dee is a fictional character from Robert Burn’s poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, a tale of witchcraft and the perils of alcohol. She is holding a horse tail, and although the modern versions of this figurehead hold a real horse hair tail, the original one would have been made of rope strands, and it was the job of the deck hands to brush it and tend it. I am sitting on my boat writing this in a storm on a very choppy River Dart and can honestly say I wouldn’t want the job of climbing up there with a brush in any sea state!

Maritime Superstitions

Ladies have featured heavily in figurehead design throughout the centuries.  During my trip to Trinity Marine Salvage, I discovered this beautiful lass looking very demure in her seafoam gown.

Lady figurehead with blond curled hair tied up and a long green gown

 Interestingly many of the women depicted in figureheads are bare breasted as is the beautiful lady below. Mariners are a superstitious bunch. Understandable considering the perils they faced on the open ocean. They believed that a naked woman had the power to shame a vicious sea to a calm. Quite ironic as they also believed the presence of a woman on board would bring terrible bad luck! 

Bare breasted lady figurehead holding flowers

Considering a great many figureheads went down with their ships, there are a remarkable number of examples still around for us to enjoy. On my recent visit to Trinity Marine Salvage, I discovered this elegant Victorian gentleman who who once graced the ‘St Vincent’, a ship built in the 1800s in Jersey, Channel Islands.

Male Victorian gentleman figurehead

The ship was built to capitalise on the sugar trade between the West Indies and the UK. She met her demise off the coast of the Scilly Isles in 1882 and this chap was salvaged from her wreckage not long after. He sat as an ornament in a garden on St Mary’s looking out to sea for a number of years until he was rescued and restored to his current glory 

 This story is quite common, and many ships were wrecked around the Scillies. The Valhalla Collection from Tresco included a selection of figureheads from merchant vessels wrecked around the island from the mid 19th century onwards. In the 1970s the collection was entrusted to the National Maritime Museum.

The Demise of the Figurehead

In 1894 the admiralty ended the practice of putting figureheads on boats, and some smaller vessels had them until the early 1900s. Modern boats are rarely built with figureheads of course. I joke with my partner Mike, who is building us a boat to travel the world, that I will send him the plans for what I want our figurehead to look like. Figureheads were costly to make and also suited the design of traditional boats. One function of them was to protect the prominence of the bow against the rigours of the weather and the ocean.  Modern yachts and merchant vessels are constructed of more durable materials and as such do not need this protection. This makes me feel a little sad, but we can still enjoy figureheads from maritime history.

Maritime Museums

Fortunately maritime museums around the world continue to value the artistry and tradition of the figurehead. They can be seen in boatyards, city centres, harbours, gardens and obviously marine salvage yards around the world.

In the fabulous book ‘Figureheads...On the Bow of the Ship’ by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, it states “When ashore, removed from the ship and divorced from their original function, an air of the uncanny surrounds figureheads”. I couldn’t agree more with this. This picture in the book really demonstrates this.

Black and white image of a figurehead in a garden on the Isles of Scilly next to someone sat on a bench

My romantic heart still appreciates the golden age of sail, and while my own sailing vessel ‘Gwennel of Falmouth’ won’t have an actual figurehead on the bow, in my mind as I sit astride the bowsprit and fly atop the waves, I can picture myself as a goddess on the bow...calming the waves with my bare breasts. Until I hear Mike shout......Melinda can you wait until we leave the harbour please?!!!  :)
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