Ship figureheads and decoration

Our collection of ship figureheads and carving traces the history of ship ornamentation from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  

There are 246 items in our collection. The number of figureheads (including scroll heads) is 93. The collection also includes 111 numbered items of carving from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert III (1897). Apart from figureheads, there are approximately 42 other pieces of decorative ship carving including trail (or name) boards, stern boards, stern figures, and other fragments of various sorts.

An ancient craft

The origins of the figurehead and other forms of ship decoration goes back thousands of years. The decoration and carving of vessels was common among seafaring civilisations of the ancient world, with evidence of Egyptian figureheads dating back to around 3000 BC.

The precise motive behind mounting a carved figurehead at the bow of a ship or boat is uncertain. It is believed these iconic objects held a strong magical or religious significance relating to a ship 'seeing' its way safely through the sea.

By around 1700, the decoration of naval vessels had reached its peak and the Royal Navy began the process of restricting ornamental carving around the bow and stern. Decoration on lower-ranking warships was curtailed in this period, while dispensations were sought for first-rate and second-rate vessels.

Figureheads in the 19th and 20th century

The advent of clipper ships around 1850 prompted a revival of the figurehead and allowed the fitting of a full-length figure at the bow. These figures often took the form of a woman, as can be seen on Cutty Sark. Figureheads and other carvings continued to adorn wooden and iron sailing vessels in this period.

Using our collections for research

The figurehead collection at the National Maritime Museum ranges from the 18th to 19th century. We hold many examples of other forms of ship decoration as well, including stern badges and figures, scrolls, transom boards, binnacles, pieces of 'inboard' carving (such as relief figures), bulkhead covers and wall panels.

Nearly two-thirds of our collection was acquired from the Admiralty between the 1930s and 1970s. As a result, our collections are particularly strong for studying naval figureheads from various classes of warship.

The Museum also holds the figurehead from Nelson's funeral carriage, plus some fine figureheads and carvings from merchant vessels. The ‘Valhalla’ collection on Tresco, Isles of Scilly, is a particularly fine group for visitors there, which has belonged to Museum since 1979.

Our excellent ship model collection also gives an indication of the scale and scope of decoration on earlier vessels, especially those from the 18th century.

Using our collections for research