Monday, 13 April 2015


This isn't about dummy heads of state. It's about ships' figureheads, and especially those created for sailing ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I think they are overlooked and underrated works of art.

Sailors then were a superstitious lot - perhaps they still are - and sensitive to the 'personality' if the ship they trusted their lives to. Every sailing ship was different and every one had a different 'feel', good or bad. There were some ships that were considered lucky, others that were not. I'm not talking about the notorious 'coffin ships' used in the merchant navy - patched-up vessels that were death traps because of their unseaworthiness. I'm referring to the atmosphere that every ship has, friendly or malign, and whether one might regard her as safe haven against any peril, or as a ship of doom that would sooner or later drag you down to Davy Jones's Locker.

Part of a ship's personality was expressed by having a figurehead. It was fixed on the prow and faced forwards over the sea ahead, and importantly had eyes to see with, and therefore (in a sense) was able to guide the ship through danger. Often the figurehead reflected the ship's name, and if so this would have helped any crewmember who couldn't read to find the right ship when signing on. It's a late example, but the ironclad HMS Warrior in Portsmouth Harbour has a figurehead in the form of a Greek warrior carrying a drawn sword and shield, as in these 2011 photos of mine. The ship itself first:

Wikipedia has a better close-up:

You can easily imagine this warrior as a living being, overcoming storms as well as enemies. The notion that the figurehead had an inner life of his or her own applied to all ships, not just those carrying guns. It was a protective entity, smoothing the ship's passage on a voyage.

There seem to have been two broad approaches.

One was to defy and conquer the wind and waves by having a fierce figurehead that exemplified strength, courage and indomitability. Thus one would have masculine figures of war, perhaps with a grim face, brandishing swords, scimitars and other weapons. Beasts that knew no fear, and tore at their prey with claw and maw, such as lions and other such creatures, would also do the trick here. In a less extreme way, notable soldiers and heroes could be pressed into service, such as - very obviously and appropriately - Lord Nelson, seen in the shot that heads this post, and here, both of them pictures taken by me in 2011:

He'd just been freshly repainted, and the story behind that is here:

On the same day, and not far away, I saw this figurehead of the Duke of Marlborough:

Information on this one is here:

The other broad approach to figureheads was to calm the wind and waves with feminine beauty, charms and softness. Thus one would have a graceful woman of virtue, to shame the elements into submission. Or, on the other hand, a mermaid, who was actually of those elements, and must have power over them. In either case, even if the lady were clearly of the utmost respectability, as much flesh as possible would be on display - a soft and rounded bosom being the best measure against any sea demons that threatened the ship. The sailors themselves, eyeing the exposed parts, would of course heartily approve!

Female figureheads of one sort or another abounded. Here is a short selection from my own archive. From 2010, seen down an alleyway in Falmouth:

Or this lily-white skinned lady, also seen at Portsmouth on that day in 2011, in imminent danger of completely exposing her left breast:

Or this well-clad lady in a cape, seen in a museum at Hastings in 2013:

Finally, a female figurehead at Constantine Bay in Cornwall that has a personal connection with myself, in the sense that I first saw her in 1965 when aged twelve, and then again from time to time until she disappeared - then reappeared, fully restored, very recently. The first decent photo I still have of her dates from 1983:

There she is, gracefully standing outside a large house, clearly used as a holiday home, that faced out across the bay at its southern end. This was taken from the public footpath. I saw lots of holidaymakers (not just me) stopping to peer at this figurehead whenever I was there in the 1960s or 1970s. She looked little different as the years passed, just slightly more weather-beaten as time went by. The house was however not so well looked after. As you can see, in 1983 it was beginning to show signs of not getting regular repaints and other necessary maintenance. By 2003 it was in rather a sorry state, and I don't think the figurehead was on view:

I was rather sad that the lady had vanished! And I wasn't the only one to lament her departure - see

However, by 2008 there had been a transformation. The house had undergone a major rebuild:

But still no figurehead! Oh well. But I should have kept the faith. When I passed by last month, in March 2015, my beady eyes noticed something in the central window:

Ah! She had returned! And she looked splendid. A pity that she was being kept indoors, but it was quite understandable that she was now being safeguarded from wind and rain. This is the story behind her restoration, which also gives her likely origin: See also And here are three shots of her in 2014, after being authentically recarved by a specialist. (I wonder what it all cost!)

I wish I were the proud owner, I can tell you.

And here's myself, figureheading at Constantine Bay, complete with the aforementioned beady eyes, and ready for late-afternoon tea and cake at the YHA at Treyarnon Bay, ten minutes off. That's Trevose Head in the background.

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