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Majestic ships’ figureheads saved, conserved and heading home to Plymouth 1

a photo of a large male ships figurehead framed by the large doors of a studio

Tamar heads out of the conservation studio for Plymouth.

A stunning collection of 19th century figureheads from Royal Navy ships is heading back to Plymouth where they were made

A series of once proud and colourful ship’s figureheads have been saved from decay and are now heading to their new home in a new museum & art gallery space opening in Plymouth in 2020.

In what is the most ambitious sculpture conservation project currently taking place in the UK, the 14 monumental 19th century naval figureheads will be a centrepiece of The Box in Plymouth, which will be the biggest arts & heritage centre in the South West of England when it opens.

Weighing over 20 tonnes collectively, the carved wooden figureheads are part of the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and were built to adorn the bows of 19th century naval warships.

Figureheads have been mounted on the bows of ships from the earliest times, giving guidance and comfort to superstitious mariners and taking on something of the ‘soul’ of the ship. When on the bows of warships they provided an image of the fighting spirit of the crew and their nation, whether their role was warfare, exploration or the protection of trade.

Although ship design eventually made them redundant, the evolution of British warship figureheads pre-dates an established navy and for three and half centuries ships were given names that were appropriate to their function and the ships’ carvers created works of art that illustrated these names.

There are about 200 figureheads of the Royal Navy that have survived from their sea-service. They are mostly now in museum collections and naval establishments in the United Kingdom with a further handful overseas. Many of them have been repaired and restored over the years.

a photo of a female ship's figurehead with a crown

HMS Calliope.

a photo of a ships' figurehead with a beard and crown

HMS Cadmus.

a photo of a feamle bare breasted ships' figurehead

HMS Aurora.

Three specialist conservation teams in London, Devon and Cornwall, led by Orbis Conservation, have spent over two years painstakingly restoring the 14 to their former glory, after years of water damage led to rot and decay.

Raw and brilliantly naïve, these giant nautical figureheads of people real or mythical have more to do with the charm of the fairground or the traditions of British popular art – rather than fine art, but they are powerful and imposing evocations of the age of sail and steam.

The largest is HMS Royal William or “King Billy” a 13ft tall, 2 tonne standing figure of William IV carved in 1833. One of the most badly damaged was HMS Topaz, a three-quarter-length female bust carved in 1858, whose ship was responsible for removing two of the Easter Island statues that now reside in the British Museum. Topaz had wood rot throughout 90% of her structure but conservators used the latest techniques to save her carved outer shell, before carefully replacing the rotting wood and repainting her.

HMS Centaur fought pirates on the coast of West Africa

Other figureheads in the collection also boast extraordinary histories that stretch back deep into the days of Empire and Britain’s naval dominance. They include HMS Sybille, inspired by the ancient Greek oracle, which played an active role in the capture of Canton during the Second China War (1856 to 1860) and HMS Centaur which fought pirates on the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855.

HMS Calliope, which was stationed in Australia during the early 1850s, was deployed to New Zealand in 1848 during wars with the Maori including the attack on Ruapekapeka.

a photo of a ships figurehead representing Queen Victoria see from below with outstretched hand carrying a golden orb

HMS Windsor Castle.

a photo of a ship's figurehead of a na with a beard and Grecian style helmet

HMS Defiance.

a photo of a ships figurehead emerging from the doorway of a warehouse

Moving Windsor Castle.

The Box is a centre for the preservation and display of maritime heritage with one of the largest collections of figureheads in the UK, and the historic collection of figureheads will form a dramatic ‘flotilla’ suspended from the ceiling of its new entrance in a nod to the city’s important maritime history.

Due to their scale (the largest being four meters high, one meter wide and two tonnes in weight), not only is the task of displaying them a major one, conservators also had to use new techniques to save them, including the use of Sonic Tomography scanning – a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees that had never been used for conserving wooden sculptures before. This enabled conservators to assess the internal condition of the timber of each figure head.

When scanning both HMS Topaz, and HMS Tamar, their condition was found to be severely degraded, yielding very little structural integrity to each figurehead, which enabled conservators to act quickly restore them.

In most cases the internal degradation through rot damage was so severe that the figureheads had to be carefully and systematically deconstructed, revealing internal timber so badly damaged that it resembled saturated compost, only retaining its structural integrity at the very outer carved surface.

Each independent section then had to undergo controlled drying, in order to minimize warping and shrinkage of the timber, in large purpose-built humidity chambers.

a side view of a bearded bare chested male centaur ship's figurehead

HMS Centaur.

a photo of a female ship's figurehead with long golden hair


a close up of a bare wooden head of a male ship's figurehead

Royal William in conservation.

“In terms of scale and complexity, this project has been one of the most challenging that the team at Orbis Conservation have ever encountered,” says Hans Thompson of the conservation company that undertook the task.

“Our analysis of both the surface paint layers and the structural integrity of the figureheads allowed us to develop a treatment methodology that saved the original carved surface and the figurehead itself.

“Throughout this project we have uncovered the previously obscured craftsmanship and virtuoso carving of these formidable figures, which otherwise might have been lost to future generations. The fact that we have been able to save so much of the original 19th Century carving to be appreciated anew by visitors to the Box, has made this project especially rewarding.”

Each figurehead has required full conservation, consolidation and restoration alongside a redesign of the existing mounting systems to facilitate suspension of the objects by steel cables in the new museum. The colourful exteriors were not original and the paintwork hid internal decay, including a multitude of repairs with glass reinforced plastic and layers of paintwork which damaged the structural integrity of each sculpture.

a photo of a large ship's figurehead representing King William III

Royal William.

a ship's figurehead in the form of an Indain man with moustache and turban


a photo of a female ship's figurehead


Once the structural integrity of each sculpture was restored, one of the challenges was how to faithfully replicate the original colour scheme of each individual figurehead.

A cross section paint analysis helped determine the original colours as they had been painted over many times and, with the help of a 1912 full colour set of Players cigarette cards featuring the navy’s most famous figureheads from the previous century (including one of the 14 being restored – HMS Calcutta), conservators developed a palette of colours that was then used to restore each of the 14 when they came to be repainted.

The figureheads will begin their journey back to Plymouth, where almost all of them were originally built to adorn naval warships in the 19th century, on October 18.

On arrival they will be suspended within the main atrium of The Box in a huge sweep that appears to sail across the glazed façade of the brand new museum and contemporary art gallery complex. Each figurehead will be secured in place with only 3 cables to create the effect of a fleet of carvings floating in space.

a photo of a large ship's figurehead being manoeuvred out of a warehouse doorway

Moving Defiance.

The Box will open in spring 2020, see https://plymhearts.org/thebox/ for more information.

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