Nannie the witch has had a makeover. Discover how traditional skills and careful research have breathed new life into Cutty Sark's figurehead
A flatbed truck pulls up outside historic ship Cutty Sark.
On the back sits a strange, missile-shaped object, wrapped in a white shroud and grey padding, strapped down tight.
The crane prepares to move. The covers are removed, and the figure of a woman appears. Beautiful and fierce, hair streaming, dress billowing, she’s lifted into the air and swung towards the ship’s prow...
This is Nannie the witch, Cutty Sark’s new figurehead. And this is the story of how she came to be.
Stay connected and receive all the latest news, stories and events from Cutty Sark
“Ships like this were meant to have a life of about 25 years,” explains Simon Thompson, shipkeeping manager at Cutty Sark. “150 years later we are still here by some miracle.”
He’s being modest; Simon and his team are the people who ensure Cutty Sark appears as ready to sail now as it ever has. Their conservation and maintenance work helps keep the ship open to visitors all year round.
Occasionally however, projects come along that even in Cutty Sark’s long history feel momentous.
In 2019 the team noticed that the ship’s previous figurehead was showing signs of rot and water saturation. Some conservation work was carried out, but the decision was eventually taken to replace it with a new carving.
This wasn’t about removing an original part of the ship; the previous figurehead wasn’t original either, having actually only been added to the ship in 1957.
Research into the ship’s original designs helped to reaffirm the decision.
“Nannie the figurehead really is the soul of the ship,” explains conservation research advisor Claire Denham.
“There have been many quotes over the years about the original figurehead that was carved with the construction of the ship, saying it is this beautiful, artistic impression of grace and beauty. The one we have is a bit more of a cruder version.”
A drawing from Cutty Sark’s designer Hercules Linton offered a glimpse of what the new figurehead could be: a beautiful witch, arm outstretched, with a handful of horse’s tail clutched in her grasp. Surely this matches Robert Burn’s description of the alluring Nannie from the poem that inspired the figurehead in the first place?
An appeal was launched ahead of Cutty Sark’s 150th anniversary year to raise funds for the project. Right from the outset the aim was to celebrate traditional woodworking skills.
“There are very few figurehead carvers left in the country, so I think it’s really important to keep these skills alive,” says researcher Claire. “Getting something done by the best craftspeople there are and maintaining it is the best way to keep Nannie up there for the next 150 years.”
Craftsman Andy Peters was tasked with bringing the project to life, following in the footsteps of Cutty Sark’s original figurehead carver Frederick Hellyer.
“In carving you’re reducing, so you only get one take at these things,” he explains. “You need a pretty clear image of what you want to achieve. You need to know when to stop.”
Carved in Swedish redwood – a “warm, tactile material” – Andy worked to create a figurehead that could both handle the demands of a ship at sea but also invoke the artistry of the initial sketches.
“Success for me would be that I’ve captured something of the spirit of the time of the ship,” he says. “It’s got to be alive and bright.”
In spring 2021 the figurehead was ready – but the final task of fitting it to the ship was a daunting one.
“You have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” shipkeeper Simon says.
First the old figurehead was removed to the Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre, where it was set alongside and compared with the new carving. The 1957 figurehead will remain part of the Museum’s collection.
Then on 11 June 2021, the new figurehead was loaded on to a truck and transported from the Collections Centre to Cutty Sark.
“Seeing her leaving on the back of the flatbed, all kinds of horrible things go through your head!” says Simon.
Lifted by crane into position by Peter Downes, Andy, the shipkeeping team and fitters TS Rigging gently manoeuvred the figurehead into place before sealing up the joints between old and new.
Appropriately, their final job involved attaching Nannie’s outstretched arm and hanging a tuft of ‘tail’ from her hand. During Cutty Sark’s working life, one of the duties of the apprentices whenever the ship was in port was to place a wad of unpicked rope in her hand to represent poor Maggie’s tail.
Now Nannie is the soul of Cutty Sark once more, and the craft and dedication required to bring the figurehead to life has become another part of the ship’s history.
“I know people find change quite difficult sometimes, going from one thing to another, thinking, ‘That was the way it was and that’s how it should be’. But I think the work that Andy’s done is second to none,” says Simon.
“To make something look like that – to feel real and anatomically correct but also correct within the boundaries of figurehead carving – is quite a feat. I hope people take her to heart.”
Book tickets now and explore the historic ship in the heart of Greenwich