The Cutty Sark Trust cares for the world’s largest collection of Merchant Navy figureheads, over 60 of which were on display on board Cutty Sark prior to closure for the Conservation Project. The figureheads lined the Lower Hold of the ship and had been on display to the public since the ship opened in 1957. The collection belonged to a London business man named Sydney Cumbers, who donated the figureheads to The Cutty Sark Preservation Society in 1953.
The collection consists of a wide range of figureheads, mostly dating from the 19th century, originating from different types of merchant vessels. The fact that these are mercantile figureheads means that provenance is often very difficult to trace: the history of a ship and its figurehead may be lost as ships were broken up or fell out of use, or names of ships (and their figureheads) might change with their owners. Several figureheads have no historical information as they may be the sole surviving object from a particular ship.
The collection includes a whole host of characters from history, legend and literature, such as: Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot.
History of figureheads
Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorate the prow of a sailing ship, and were thought to represent the vessel’s spirit. It was believed that they offered the crew protection from the harsh seas and safeguarded their homeward journey. The figureheads were also used to identify a ship—one of a range of subjects would be chosen, reflecting the name of the ship from mid-18th century onwards.
The figureheads in The Cutty Sark Collection were produced by professional figurehead carvers, who lived and worked by the docks. Hard woods, such as oak or teak, were used and might have been treated with resins to increase the figure’s resistance to water, rot and wear. They were lovingly cared for by the crew, who took great pride in the appearance of their ship and its figurehead. The superstitions of seamen meant that the figurehead held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it.
A range of subjects were chosen for the figureheads of merchant vessels. Very often, they were portraits of individual family members of the ship-owner, or even the owner himself. Alternatively he may have chosen a figure from history or an influential individual from contemporary society.
Figureheads were often female but not exclusively so. A female may have been popular as the ship itself is always referred to as a ‘she’, and since women were often not allowed on board, the figurehead itself might represent the sole female on the ship.
Cutty Sark's collection of figureheads showcases some of the finest examples of this unique maritime art.
Figureheads died out with the arrival of steamships and the disappearance of the bowsprit.
The entire figurehead collection was removed to storage for the duration of The Cutty Sark Conservation Project. The figureheads will be re-displayed in the new exhibition area in the dry berth when the ship re-opens in 2012.
Long John Silver
The Cutty Sark Collection of figureheads were all acquired by an avid collector of maritime artefacts called Sydney Cumbers. He was born in 1875, and from a very early age began to collect everything and anything to do with the merchant marine. Sydney lost his left eye when he was young, and when he later took to wearing an eye patch over it, he acquired the nick-name ‘Captain Long John Silver’.
Sydney was based in London and in the 1930s, he purchased a second home in Gravesend, Kent. This was named ‘The Look-Out’ and became the home of his growing collection of artefacts as well as the spiritual home of his alter-ego, ‘Captain Long John Silver’. He lived there with his wife, who was fondly referred to as ‘The Mate’. The house was fitted out and named after different parts of a ship (for example, the ‘Bridge’, ‘Foc’s’le’ and ‘Hurricane Deck’) and was dominated by the extensive collection of figureheads.
The Silver Collection of figureheads was developed and maintained by Sydney and his ‘crew’, and ranged from individual heads to 10 foot tall figures. He would research the figureheads as far as he could, and was constantly on the look-out for new acquisitions.
When the lease was up on the property in 1953, Sydney Cumbers donated his collection to The Cutty Sark Society. ‘The Silver Collection’ is, as it was then, dedicated to the merchant seamen of Great Britain and the flotilla of small ships that went to rescue the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in 1940.
Cutty Sark’s figurehead is a young witch named ‘Nannie’ who was a character in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. This poem, penned in 1790, recalls the ancient legend of Tam, a farmer who, after an evening drinking with friends, was riding home on his horse called Meg. On his way home, he saw that the churchyard of Kirk Alloway was occupied by a collection of warlocks and witches, with the Devil himself playing the bagpipes.
The astonished Tam saw that among the ugly group of witches, there was one which was young and beautiful. Her name was Nannie, and she wore only a 'cutty sark', a short shift. Tam was bewitched and, as her dancing became wilder, in his excitement, he cried out "Weel done cutty sark!" The witches then pursued Tam who fled for his life to the bridge over the river Doon, for he knew that witches could not cross running water. Nannie was faster than the others and, as the mare galloped over the bridge, she seized it by the tail, which came off in her hand. Hence, the figurehead is always shown holding a horse's tail in her left hand. Find out more about Cutty Sark's name and the Tam O'Shanter story.
A replica figurehead currently adorns the ship's bow and the original figurehead is in the Trust's collection of museum objects. Cutty Sark's figurehead was designed by Hercules Linton (who also designed the ship), and carved by F. Hellyer of Blackwall. When Cutty Sark still sailed, the apprentices on board the ship would make a horse's tail from old rope and place it in Nannie’s outstretched arm.