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Restored ships’ figureheads installed in their new home in Plymouth

a close up of the face of a female ships figurehead

Royal Windsor at The Box in Plymouth. Photo credit Wayne Perry

We return to The Box in Plymouth to see how the remarkable collection of restored ships’ figureheads are looking in the atrium of the city’s new arts centre and museum

The tradition of ships’ figureheads is said to stretch back millennia to the Ancient Greeks and Romans who established them as a talisman or lucky mascot to the crew, that would act as the eyes of the ship to guide it and protect it from the it across the oceans.

But the practice of attaching wooden figureheads to ships’ bows really took hold from the 16th century when elaborate carvings seemingly allowed ships to carve through the waves, helped crews bond with their vessels and also identify ships by sight.

Now one of the best collections of these dramatic relics of the age of sail is about to be revealed to the public in Plymouth.

Having spent two years in conservation workshops in London and Cornwall, a collection of 14 strikingly monumental ships’ figureheads that once adorned ships of the Royal Navy has been fully restored, repainted and suspended as a flotilla in a four-story glass atrium, where they await visitors to the city’s new museum and arts centre, The Box.

a photo of a group of ships figureheads displayed together in a gallery

Sybil, Royal William, Tamar and Cantaur at the entrance of The Box – Photo credit Wayne Perry.

a photo of a group of ships figureheads suspended from a ceiling

Figureheads unveiled. Photo credit Wayne Perry

When it opens on May 16, The Box will be the biggest arts & heritage centre in the South West of England and the figureheads, which are on long-term loan from the National Collection of the Royal Navy, will form the centrepiece of a collection that celebrates the region’s long and illustrious maritime history.

Restoring the 14 wooden figureheads, which all come from 19th century ships, after years of water damage leading to rot and decay, has been a major project for the museum, which called in specialists Orbis Conservation.

The company pioneered a new technique using Sonic Tomography scanning – a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees that had never been used for conserving wooden sculptures before.

This new method enabled conservators to assess the internal condition of the timber of each figurehead. 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 to restore them.

a photo of a group of ships figureheads seen from below

Unveiling of the ships figureheads at the Box Museum, Plymouth, Devon. Photo Wayne Perry.

a close up of a ships figurehead in the form of an Indian man

Calcutta at The Box in Plymouth. Photo credit Wayne Perry

Weighing over 20 tonnes collectively, the largest of the 14 wooden figureheads to be rescued 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 of the figureheads was HMS Topaz a three-quarter-length female bust carved in 1858. Topaz was the ship was responsible for removing two of the Easter Island statues that are now in the British Museum’s collection.

Topaz had wood rot throughout 90% of her structure but conservators used extraordinary techniques including Sonic Tomography to save her carved outer shell, before carefully replacing the rotting wood and repainting her.

Other figureheads in the collection also have extraordinary histories including HMS Sybille, inspired by the ancient Greek oracle, who played an active role in the capture of Canton during the Second China War; HMS Centaur, who fought pirates on the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855; and HMS Calliope who was stationed in Australia during the early 1850s and deployed to New Zealand in 1848 during wars with the Maori, including the attack on Ruapekapeka.

a photo of a man leaning over balcony with brush which he is using to brush the moustache of a ships figurehead

Final touches. Photo Wayne Perry.

photo of a sheet being pulled from a large statue of a king

Grand unveiling of King Billy at The Box. Photo Wayne Perry

There are about 200 figureheads of the Royal Navy that have survived their sea-service and they are mostly now in museum collections and naval establishments in the United Kingdom, with a further handful overseas.

Another major collection of figureheads can be found at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, whose massive assemblage of merchant vessel figureheads forms a kind of choir in the Sammy Ofer Gallery, under the bow of Cutty Sark and her own figurehead, Nannie.

The Box will open on Saturday May 16 2020 as part of Plymouth’s major Mayflower 400 commemorations as a new cultural and heritage complex that completely transforms, extends and combines the original City Museum, Art Gallery and Central Library buildings and restores St Luke’s Church to create new galleries, a striking elevated archive together with learning and research facilities.


The Box

Plymouth, Devon

The Box is a new cultural and heritage complex that completely transforms, extends and combines the original City Museum, Art Gallery and Central Library buildings and restores St Luke’s Church, to create new galleries, a striking elevated archive, learning and research facilities and the first public square to be built…

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