Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorated the prows of sailing ships.
Elm or oak was used for figureheads up to the 18th century, but after this time alternative woods were used as the heavy, hard woods were found to impact on the seaworthiness of the vessels. Yellow pine was a popular choice of material – in essence the carver needed light and durable woods, but it needed to be timber that was least prone to rotting given the constant exposure to water.
A solid block of wood was chosen, or if a very large figure, then several large pieces of timber would be dowelled and glued together. A sketch of the figurehead may be made by the carver or the shipbuilder, but the exact design would be dictated by the size of the ship and the rake of the bow. Chisels, mallets, gouges and sandpaper would be used and the eventual cost of the work depended on amount of labour involved – some figureheads could take weeks, some months.
From the mid-18th century onwards, merchant ship owners selected any subject they chose as their figurehead – maybe people or names that were meaningful to them (for example a family member) or well-known figures with heroic or favourable qualities which the ship-owner hoped merchants would associate with their vessel and shipping company. To the crew, the figureheads were seen as lucky charms, representing not only the eyes of the ship guiding them safely home but also the spirit of the vessel as well.
At Cutty Sark, the largest collection of merchant navy figureheads in the world is displayed in the Sammy Ofer Gallery, in the dock under the raised hull of the ship. This collection is gathered like a colourful choir at the north end of the gallery, positioned directly under the bow of ship.
This collection is known as the Long John Silver Collection after the donor Sydney Cumbers whose alter ego was ‘Captain Long John Silver’. He donated the entire collection to the ship in 1953 when plans were in place to bring Cutty Sark to Greenwich. He dedicated the collection as a memorial to the Merchant Navy, thereby supporting Cutty Sark’s memorial role as well.
Among the figureheads in the Long John Silver collection are a vast range of characters from literature, legend, history and politics which we will explore in a series of blogs over the coming weeks. Visitors will notice however that for half of the collection, the names, namesakes and stories are a mystery to us as they were lost to obscurity when the vessels they once adorned were wrecked or broken up.
Join us these next few weeks, as we take a closer look at the different figureheads in the collection; from political figures like Gladstone and Lincoln to figures from legend like Sir Lancelot and Hiawatha.