Figureheads

When I was small, I was sometimes taken to visit my grandparents’ cousins’ farm at Swan Bottom in Buckinghamshire.  On the way I always looked out for the figurehead of Admiral Lord Howe at The Lee.  An incongruous place for a ship’s figurehead you might think.  It was from HMS Himalaya, one of two wooden hulks purchased by Sir Arthur Liberty from the Royal Navy in 1926 and used to construct the mock-Tudor of Liberty’s in London.

Since then, the painted figureheads that adorned wooden sailing ships during the age of sail were not something that I had thought about much.  That changed this year, when our research for Heritage Weekends took us to two of England’s great port cities: Plymouth and Portsmouth.  Figureheads were often saved when the ship was scrapped because of their artistic value. Having visited these cities I can understand why.

In Plymouth, visitors to The Box, a major new museum, gallery and archive are immediately greeted by a striking flotilla of thirteen nineteenth-century figureheads suspended from the ceiling of the foyer, whilst another, the Royal William, stands on the floor.

At Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, the Figurehead Gallery on the upper floor of the HMS Victory Museum contains one of the finest collections of naval figureheads in the world.

Figureheads are not just part of our maritime history, they are works of art.

I visited Plymouth and Portsmouth in summer 2021.

2 thoughts on “Figureheads

  1. Thanks for a great post. Living in New England I get to see the collections at Mystic Seaport and at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. some of the ones you show I’ve seen older photos of so it’s nice to see current ones and photos of ones I have not seen.

    Like

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