Monday, January 24, 2011

Ship Figureheads: Symbols of the Sea

Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

The art of glorious (or frightening) "hood ornaments" for ships

The elaborate decorative wooden carvings known as figureheads were found on the prow of ships built between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many depicted human females or animals, but other designs could be found as well. There had been ornamentation on boats and ships in earlier eras, in Egypt for example, plus in other cultures of the ancient world.

(top: the figurehead of the Cutty Sark, 1869; photo by Alexey Suloev, see more)

This ship’s figurehead was originally dated to the Viking period, but is now thought to be from between 350 and 650 AD, when the Germanic peoples were expanding in Europe during the breakup of the Western Roman Empire (left image below):

(images via 1, 2)

A few centuries later, Viking ships often displayed fearsome dragon’s heads on their voyages between around 800 and 1000 AD (middle and right images above).

(images via)

Dutch ships' figureheads: left & middle: "Sjaelland" line ship, 1787; on the right is "Phoenix" from 1811:

(images via)

However, the general practice of using a figurehead arrived with the development of the ocean going galleons of the 1500’s. Similar to the manner in which pub signs (which we examined in a couple of previous articles here on Dark Roasted Blend) were employed to advertise premises when the majority of the population couldn’t read, ship figureheads were often used to indicate the name of a ship in a much less literate society. They also could serve to display the wealth and social status of the ship’s owner or the might and power of the country, in the case of military vessels.

Various Dutch and Russian figureheads from 1739-1741:

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Not just an ornament - a guide to the afterlife!

Figureheads also served as a kind of good luck charm for the ship’s crew. In Germany, Belgium and Holland, it was believed that the ship’s figureheads contained spirits called Kaboutermannekes. These spirits protected the ship and crew from fierce storms, treacherous winds, uncharted rocks, illness or disease, and in the event the ship sank, the spirits would guide the sailors souls to the afterlife. If sailors lost their lives at sea without such protection, it was believed their souls would haunt the sea for all eternity.

Figureheads became somewhat popular again following the Napoleonic Wars, after having almost disappeared entirely by 1800, but were smaller that the full figure versions that had been popular in previous centuries.

Here’s the bow of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, from the early nineteenth century (left).

(images via 1, 2, 3)

The British frigate Unicorn was launched in 1824 with the striking decoration (shown above right).

Left: Prince Henry the Navigator figurehead from "Sagres II", Portugal, 1937... Right: monk figurehead from Amerigo-Vespucci, 1931:

(images via)

(images credit: left Heather Cuthill; right via)

A Tea for Two and a Rub for my Figurehead!

The clippers, which sailed the globe’s trade routes in the mid nineteenth century, usually had full figureheads, but these were usually lightweight versions. Prior to being closed for major restoration, the tea clipper Cutty Sark at Greenwich, London, contained a large collection of ships' figureheads:

(all images copyright WhipperSnapper, used by permission)

The first steamships sometimes had decorations on their bows, but figureheads mostly died out with the demise of the sailing ship.

(image via)

The Royal Navy ship HMS Rodney, launched in 1884, was the last British battleship to have a figurehead, although some smaller British vessels continued to use them until the early years of the twentieth century. Here’s the figurehead of HMS Warrior from the same era (left image):

(images via 1, 2)

The German ocean liner Imperator, launched in 1912, used a large bronze eagle as a figurehead (see above image on the right). The extra feet of length it provided made Imperator the longest ship in the world at the time, beating the British ship Olympic, a sister vessel of the Titanic.

Figureheads usually depicted human figures, but here we have a lion (below left)... and even King Neptune himself (middle image), whose face seems entirely similar to the figurehead of HMS Ajax, which was built in 1809 and featured in many engagements during the lengthy conflict with Napoleon (below right):

(images via 1, 2)

Here’s a sight familiar to residents of, and visitors to, the Canadian city of Vancouver. This carving of a sea dragon, located in Stanley Park, is a replica of the figurehead of the Empress of Japan, which sailed back and forth from Canada’s west coast to Asia from the early 1890’s until 1922.

(left image credit Kevin R. Boyd, right image via)

And speaking of Asia, here are some examples of figureheads from Thailand, displayed on barges used by the royal family. This first one dates from the mid-sixteenth century.

(image credit: left Guava, right Peter Sealy)

Today, the examples of elaborately decorated figureheads found in museums, historic collections and other locations around the world remain a fascinating reminder of a bygone age. We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at figureheads here at Dark Roasted Blend.


Simon Rose is the author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including The Alchemist's Portrait, The Sorcerer's Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald Curse, The Heretic's Tomb and The Doomsday Mask.



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