What is Ship’s Figurehead?

The history of shipbuilding goes back to the Medieval times when the sailing boats were made by attaching the wooden planks together. Since then, the process of building a ship has witnessed immense transformations, eventually building modern superyachts and cruise ships. However, even in the modern times, the construction of a vessel remains a much complicated and lengthy process that includes several of interesting stages of production- from keel laying to the christening. Among them, the decoration of vessels, especially of the luxury cruise ships in these days, represents one of the fascinating elements of shipbuilding. However, in the earlier days of shipbuilding had witnessed the immense presence of several forms of decorations and carving of vessels, including the ship figureheads.

The ship figurehead, which was popular between the 16th and 20th centuries, is a carved wooden decoration located on the bow of vessels. The ship figureheads were the highlight of ancient shipbuilding and architecture till their redundancy on account of developments in vessel-building and architecture. However, these decorations can be regarded as noteworthy relics of maritime history. Built primarily of wood, a figurehead prominently represented the frontal part of the vessel, contributing to a singular identity to the vessel itself. The real motive behind the placement of a carved figurehead at the bow of a vessel remains uncertain. But, it is a confirmed fact that these decorations had been used historically with a belief that those icons have strong magical or religious significance.

The origin and use of ship figureheads

The origin of the figurehead or any similar decoration goes back to thousands of years, up to the ancient Greeks or beyond that. The earliest usage of the wooden statue is reported to be by the Phoenicians and later on by Egyptians, though the actual years are unknown. The use of figurehead reportedly came into general practice with the galleons, which are used from the 15th to the 18th centuries. From the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, the tradition passed on to the Orientals and to the Europeans, in the hey-days of the 13th century, continuing up to the tradition’s last dregs in the early 20th century. It is in these times that the actual purpose of the figurehead started to slightly digress and vary. And, during the Baroque era, the elaborately designed carvings were common scene on the high-ranking ships.

According to historical documents, the ships constructed by in ancient Greek had eyes painted on either side of the bow and later Romans adopted this idea to put figurehead onto the bow of a vessel. The architectural subtlety of the wood carvers and the resultant beauty of the figureheads led to them being an entity in their own right, where once protection was the only motto of these carvings. For illiterate and uneducated seafarers, these figureheads became the vessel’s pseudonym. Thus in many cases, the vessels came to be identified, tagged and known by the figureheads on ships rather than their name itself. Similarly, the figureheads on the naval ships aimed to show the wealth and might of the owner.

The figureheads were a carved representation of the spirit of the ship, in the form of people, beasts or mythological figure. The actual intended premise of incorporating a ship figurehead by the Egyptian and Phoenician seafarers, the replica of holy birds and horses respectively, was to ensure absolute protection for the vessel and her crew. The toothy and bug-eyed figureheads used on the Viking ships were aimed to protect the vessel from evil spirits, while the use of boars’ heads in Ancient Greeks was to symbolise acute vision and ferocity. Meanwhile, Romans used a carving of a centurion to represent valour in battle.

On the other hand, the carved wooden forms of dragons, dolphins, serpents and bulls were the most common ship figureheads of northern Europeans. In the 13th Century, northern Europeans introduced the swan as the figureheads in order to symbolise grace and mobility. Later, the lion on the English ships and the figure of a partially clothed woman became the most common figureheads in use across the world.

A very popular lore about the figureheads is that they used to be depicted according to the prevalent anecdotes about the sea. For example, the popular figurehead of a topless lady represented an offering to the oceans to appease it. This was quite contrary to the otherwise accepted norm that women aboard vessels would cause the sailors to become distracted and thus steering them away from their original route. And, sailors then used to believe the songs of mermaids will lead them to shipwreck on coral reefs and rocky coastlines. The figurine of a topless lady, however, would entice the ocean Gods and spirits to its beauty, they believed, thereby enabling the vessel to proceed on course without any harm befalling it. Similarly, British ships often had placed the carvings of clothed women on the bows of their ships.

Those included the carvings of female royalty like Queen Victoria. And, the mythical creatures – indicative of vessel’s origins – like dragons and huge snakes were also used in addition to the carvings of Mother Mary and Jesus and the apostles. The figures of prominent political figures also appeared as the ship figureheads of both national and privately owned vessels in the later periods, believing the statues of powerful political leaders would offer luck and wealth.

Limitations of figureheads and the decline in use

During the century spanning the 1700s and the 1800s, ship figureheads were the style in vogue, a style no ship could do without. However, despite being one of the attractions of the ships, the large figureheads on the bows offered difficulties to the operation of the vessel. The figureheads, which were made of wood and weighed heavy, used to increase the weight of the vessel substantially, leading to considerable difficulties while sailing. While initially elm was used as a carving medium, in the latter years, wood varieties like teak, pine and oak were preferred to reduce the weightiness of the final wood sculpture. On a similar note, these wood carvings also required a huge investment which caused unwanted problems for the vessel owner or operator. Even when there was an attempt to reduce cost by the builder, the captains and other crew members reportedly pushed for the placement of significant figures possible. Historical documents claim the pressure from captains sometimes reinstated the individualized figurehead for bigger ships, while captains of smaller vessels were willing to spend even from their own pocket for a suitable figurehead.

Later, the figureheads appeared during the 18th century became smaller and even started abolishing in around 1800. However, there was a comeback of the figureheads in the later period, but with considerable change in the size and investment. Meanwhile, the introduction and development of non-wood vessels also resulted in the decline of these mascots. Additionally, since the newer vessels were more streamlined, there was left no place to position the figureheads. Still, certain vessels did equip these mascots at the time of the First World War, especially German and British ships, though by that time, the tradition had already started to ebb. The entry of big battleships also resulted in the abolishment of figureheads. Though smaller Royal Navy vessels continued to carry the figures, HMS Rodney was the last British battleship to feature a figurehead. However, the warships still feature badges, which are the huge plaques placed on the superstructure with a unique design linked to the ship’s name or role.

The fate of Figureheads

As said earlier, the popularity of wooden figureheads ended with the disappearance of wooden vessels. The transformations in the process of shipbuilding eventually put the tradition of placing ship figureheads behind and replaced them with elegant architecture. Moreover, the new forms of decorations introduced in the 20th century also replaced the figureheads on the vessels, sending them to receive residence in galleries and museums. This transition began in the early 90s with the introduction of two-dimensional art was one of the significant threats of such traditional decorations. However, the market has adopted the figureheads in different forms in these days as descendants of such a decoration comes in the form of stuffed toy animals attached to many commercial vehicles.

Royal Museums Greenwich is one of such places which have a collection of figureheads that traces the history of ship decoration from the 17th to the 20th centuries. According to the museum, there are 93 figureheads in the collection along with 111 numbered items of carving from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert III. Moreover, the museum has around 42 pieces of different decorative ship carving such as trail boards, stern boards, stern figures, and among others.

At present, those carvings find a very valuable place in marine museums and repositories, inviting the attention of marine enthusiasts, history students and other researchers. Their place is vital because they help us understand maritime history and success of an altogether different era, about which, we might have had no idea otherwise.

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