Ship's Figureheads Exhibited in Plymouth

The Wood Technology Society
31 Oct 2019

Recently announced is that the The Box, (part of Plymouth’s Museums and Galleries and a major scheme in the heart of Plymouth), will in 2020 be exhibiting 14 wooden Royal Naval ship figureheads. 

This follows extensive restoration using specialist contractors and conservation specialists.


Royal Naval ship's figurehead

Photograph courtesy of Orbis Conservation.


Weighing a combined total of more than 20 tonnes, the figureheads were originally carved in the 1800s and are on loan to The Box from the National Museums of the Royal Navy.

The figureheads have been saved from decay by three specialist conservation teams based in London, Devon and Cornwall. Over the last two years the teams have painstakingly analysed, repaired and repainted them – removing years of water damage and returning them to their former glory.

Once built to adorn the bows of naval warships, from Spring 2020 these icons of maritime history will be suspended in a huge sweep in The Box’s main entrance space.

13 figureheads will hang from the ceiling, to create the effect of a fleet of carvings floating in space. The 14th and largest figurehead will stand on the floor with a huge display of nearly 300 ship’s badges behind it.

The largest figurehead is from HMS Royal William. Known as ‘King Billy’ he’s a 13 feet tall, 2 tonne standing figure of William IV carved in 1833. Others include an ancient Greek-inspired figurehead from HMS Sybille, which played an active role in the capture of Canton during the Second China War (1856-1860), and the figurehead from HMS Centaur which fought pirates off the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855.

Due to the scale of the figureheads, conservators have pioneered a new technique using Sonic Tomography scanning – a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees. Prior to this it had never been used to conserve large-scale wooden sculptures.

The technique enabled the teams to accurately assess the amount of deterioration inside each figurehead. This, along with an analysis of the surface paint layers, enabled them to develop the most appropriate treatment methods. It’s an approach that has not only saved the original carved surfaces and the figureheads themselves, it’s also uncovered previously obscured craftsmanship that might have been lost forever.

After securing the structural integrity and carrying out all the repair and restoration work each figurehead has been repainted using a newly-developed colour palette.

You can find out more about the figureheads here.


You may also be interested to know that the Cutty Sark, in London’s Greenwich and part of the Royal Museums Greenwich, is home to the largest collection of Merchant Navy figureheads in the world, and the collection of ship figureheads and carving traces the history of ship ornamentation from the 17th to the 20th centuries - the Long John Silver Figurehead collection.

A visit to the Cutty Sark, or to the Cutty Sark website is worthwhile.  The latter explains “What is a Figurehead,” “The History of Figureheads.” And “How were Figureheads Made.”  Here is the direct link.

Interestingly, the Museum’s website explains that elm or oak was used for figureheads up to the 18th century, but later yellow pine became popular as lighter and durable species, that was least prone to rotting given the constant exposure to water, were needed.