Heroic, saucy and sometimes downright baffling – Cutty Sark's collection of Merchant Navy ships' figureheads is the largest collection in the world and not to be missed.
Among them are characters from history, legend and literature, such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Benjamin Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot.
In many cases, these figureheads are all that remain of the ships they once adorned. The vessels have been lost, wrecked or broken up so we can only guess who these figureheads might represent - will you have your own theories?
What are figureheads?
Figureheads are the carved wooden sculptures that decorate the prows of sailing ships. In the perilous life of an ocean-going ship, figureheads embodied the spirit of the vessel, offering the crew protection from harsh seas and safeguarding their homeward journeys.
As such, they were often lovingly cared for by the crew. 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.
Figureheads were often female but not exclusively so. A female may have been popular because the ship itself is always referred to as a ‘she’. As women were often not allowed on board, the figurehead itself might also represent the sole female on the ship.
But a range of subjects were chosen for the figureheads of merchant vessels. Very often, they were portraits of a member of the ship-owner’s family, or even the owner himself. Alternatively the owner may have chosen a figure from history or an influential individual from contemporary society.
The Silver Collection
The Cutty Sark’s 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 was obsessed 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 nickname ‘Captain Long John Silver’.
In 1953 Sydney donated his collection to Cutty Sark. ‘The Silver Collection’ is 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.
As well as our collection, visit Cutty Sark to see her own figurehead, Nannie from Robert Burns’s poem Tam O’Shanter, mounted on the prow of the ship.