Ships’ Figureheads Revealed

September 2021

In this episode we explore the fascinating history of ships’ figureheads. Why did shipbuilders begin to place carvings of humans and animals on the bows of their ships in the sixteenth century? And why did this practice stop 300 years later? Dr Sam Willis meets Rear Admiral David Pulvertaft, an expert on figureheads, to find our more about these remarkable carvings and to consider a number of examples that exist worldwide.

David Pulvertaft’s unknown figurehead discussed in the podcast.

To go alongside this episode we have created an extraordinary video using artificial intelligence and digital artistry to bring the figureheads to life, showing the real people that inspired the carvers.

This has been a bit of a hit and miss process with a number of failures but we have had success with eleven – and they are fabulous. When the known examples of figureheads are considered as a whole it is immediately striking how diverse are the people depicted. Although the societies that made these figureheads were dominated by white men, the figureheads show a huge range of people – both men and women and from a huge variety of indigenous populations. One of the impacts of this is a powerful reminder of the colonial activities that many of these ships would have taken part in including the buying and selling of humans in the slave trade and the appropriation of vast tracts of land occupied by indigenous peoples.

For more background please check out this excellent blog from the Lloyds Register Foundation

The gallery of figureheads below comes from the collection of the Lloyds Register Foundation

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis 

    Today I’m speaking with David Pulvertaft a retired Rear Admiral, with a fascination and deep knowledge of ships figureheads, with a particular interest in figureheads from warships. He is the author of a number of works on figureheads, including figureheads of the Royal Navy published in 2011. And the result of 20 years of research into the topic. David kindly invited me to his house and showed me his library of reference material, and also the remains of some splendid figureheads. Do please bear in mind as you’re listening to this, that we have created a fabulous video or more accurately, a series of videos to go alongside this podcast. In which we use artificial intelligence to scan images of figureheads and then translate that data with the help of some digital artistry into a photo real human face. This has been a bit of a hit and miss process with a number of spectacular and hilarious failures. But we’ve had success with 11 and they are fabulous. You can say perhaps these videos bring the figureheads to life for perhaps they reveal the real person who inspired the figurehead carver’s. When I looked at the many figureheads that survived. One of the things that immediately struck me was the diversity of humanity depicted in these remarkable carvings. Although the societies that made them were dominated by white men, the figureheads show a huge range of people, both men and women, and from a huge variety of indigenous populations. I think this makes the surviving figureheads particularly interesting and also serves as a powerful reminder of the colonial activities that many of these ships would have taken part in, including, of course, the buying and selling of humans in the slave trade and the appropriation of vast tracts of land occupied by indigenous peoples. Because of this, the subject of figureheads is, I think, far more significant than many suspect and has yet to be fully explored for its cultural implications. So if you’re listening to this and fancy writing a PhD on it, well, I’m fully in support. Now, here is David Pulvertaft’s, you can pitch us in a beautiful tall ceiling study in a house in Ottery St  Mary in Devon. Here we are in David’s office. And it’s fabulous. It’s slightly like what I imagined a Roman emperors room to be when you’re surrounded by busts, except you’re a flag officer, and you’ve got figureheads. But it’s the same principle as Nero’s palace. I think who are who are these chappies we’ve got we’ve got a couple of couple of figureheads here, who’s this guy down here.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    He’s a little Indian boy, who wasn’t off a warship. And it’s warships that I really concentrate on. But Mary raised my wife found him in a Philips auction sale in 1990. And thought he was rather fun and bought him for me. And that sort of set the ball rolling. I’ve got no idea who he was, indeed whether he ever came off a ship because he might well be a modernish carving, who’s been distressed to make look old. But he’s quite a friendly little character.

     

    Sam Willis 

    A very friendly little character. We’ve got a green spit of scrollwork at the bottom, very smart, red tunic arms folded, a beady eyed, is that a smile? It’s a sort of semi smile, isn’t it a fabulous turban on top, and a very different head right on the top of your bookcase here who’s that?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    He’s not nearly good condition but is much more interesting. In that it’s, it depicts King George the fourth. And it was given to me, it’s only the head of a bust figure. And on the wall below him is a photograph of him when he was complete in a orchard in Gloucestershire

     

    Sam Willis 

    is a wonderful photo. He’s covered in snow, as well. And so what how what happened to that did the rest of it sort of fall apart and you ended up with the head?

     

     

    Yes, he typically people painted them once a year, left them outside and naturally rot set in. And he obviously collapsed and but he’s in the true style. In the photograph, it shows him wearing the sash and the star of the Order of the Garter. He’s got a laurel wreath on his hair and green sideboard’s. The person who gave it to me was a widow of a diplomat, and they bought him in an auction sale and put him in their garden. They had no idea who he was. And the reason he’s got green hair is because their gardener wanted to repaint him. All he had in the potting shed was green paint.

     

    Sam Willis 

    A bit of make do and mend with what with what you can I like that he’s, he’s a very sort of classic  figurehead shape. It’s not a brilliant carving the skin is a sort of doughy colour. And then one of the things I love about figureheads is the variety. So this is Indian chap down here, especially very well made, well, sort of constructed, carving, whereas this one is a bit sort of clumsier, isn’t it and that there’s such a wonderful variety and figures.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    I think I haven’t got true provenance for him. But I think he came from an 1821 ship, which was built for the Falmouth Packet service, six gun packet, and it was bought by the Admiralty in 1826 and renamed Cynthia. And you couldn’t have the king as the figurehead of Cynthia. So that would be in when he was removed, and then goes into obscurity until I found reference to him. Went to visit the widow of the diplomat, who was fascinated the story I had to tell. And some months later rang up to say she thought I better have him, so I’ve rescued him. And one day, I might even have him restored. Because he is a bit a bit neglected. What I also wish

     

    Sam Willis 

    It had change gender as well from George to Cynthia. It’s a very modern story. I think that’s fantastic.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    If you reach just down there, I’ll introduce you to a third bit of carving.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Oh my goodness me this what I’m looking for. Yeah, so I’ve just found this look is what David’s office is so wonderful. There are bits of ship lurking everywhere. This is I’ve just got a timber. And it’s a piece of hand very obviously I’d say it was a left hand I can see the thumb, which is holding something with scales on. Is that right?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes, very well observed.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And there is a faded plaque on it which my eyesight can’t pick up so I will pass it to the elderly gentleman who could probably see it better than me.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, absolutely. It’s nice. It’s so easy to have your eye kind of  sucked into the actual figureheads, the bits with the eyes and the nose and the mouth, but of course there are there are pieces of figurehead as well, which are deserving of our attention as historians. And let’s go back to the beginning here. What is a figurehead?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    So it’s a lovely piece in that it came from HMS Serpent, which had a snake charmer as the figurehead. Yes. This is his, as you say his left arm, holding the snake’s head, the scaled thing, and HMS serpent was a torpedo cruiser built in 1887 in Devonport wrecked on the Spanish coast in 1890, only three years later, for the loss of all the crew bar three. The three happened to be the sea boats crew who were dressed up on deck with lifeboats on, and so they survived. And the Admiralty sent out another small frigate to bring the survivors home. They came back and brought half the figurehead to Plymouth, where it rested in the Devonport collection and then was moved in 1937 to the National Maritime Museum, where it was half a figurehead, hardly discernable, didn’t have a head. It’s left hand was missing. And it’s been in the National Maritime Museum but not on display ever since. Some years ago, probably 15 years ago, somebody told me that the other, no the figurehead of the serpent, was in North Spain. And I said rubbish because I’ve got records of it in being in Greenwich. Anyway, I eventually went out there to look at this and it was the other half the figurehead had split in two. The left half was in London, the right half was in Spain. And I’ve got lovely photographs of both. And then some years later, I heard through my Spanish contact, that the hand was in an antique dealer’s house in Gloucestershire, or shop. And so I went and bought him at some considerable expense because they were medals from an admiral with it, etc. And so that is, again one day it will be married up with maybe the left hand half and a photograph perhaps of the right hand of it could make a lovely story.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Well, a figurehead serves many purposes. In ancient times, they existed if you go to the Valley of the Kings and see the frescoes on the entrances to the pharaohs tombs. There are boats or ships with figureheads taking the god kings to the Netherland. The Vikings had great animals on the price of their ships.

     

    Sam Willis 

    They’re my favorite ones. I think they’re quite aggressive aren’t they.

     

     

    Even the Bayeux Tapestry of the invasion of William the Conqueror, shows the boats or ships boats mainly with animal heads carved in the bow and stern. So they served a purpose for giving a decoration to the end of the bow structure. Later, they had all sorts of symbolic meaning reasons, maybe religious, maybe superstitions, sailors who are going out and exploring the world were superstitious men, and they like to have a talisman to follow. And then later still, when they became personalised to the ship’s name, they were a way of drunken sailors finding their way back to their own ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s my ship. Very good.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And some people believed that the figurehead allowed the ship to see where it was going. So there are all sorts of stories behind

     

    Sam Willis 

    there’s much more ancient tradition is there repeating eyes on the vessels and go to the Mediterranean. You can see it on the vessels of fishing boats isn’t the same principle as it.

     

    Sam Willis 

    He’s undressed.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yep, certainly. And they also had a tremendous esprit de corps. There’s the story of HMS Brunswick at the glorious first of June battle, where she the figurehead was struck, and the hat was blown off the figurehead of Lord Brunswick who was there. The shipwright came up to the captain and said, it’s it’s wrong for us to go into battle now with the Lord without his hat.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    So the captain gave him his hat. Oh, it was nailed on to the figurehead, but it’s a principle  that they needed to have their figurehead looking right and proper for war. So there are all sorts of fundamental things about figureheads, which are worth remembering when one’s simply treating them as artefacts.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I wonder what they thought of the king has green hair

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    They’d have probably turned in the king’s grave.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I think they might have done absolutely.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    In 1727 the figurehead had a bit of a U turn, in that they were allowed to have figureheads carved in the likeness of the ship’s name. Up until then, all warships, the majority of warships had lions as their figurehead.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What date was that again?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    1. So for the rest of that century, the lions continued on some of the new ships that were built, but other personalised figureheads started taking over and by the end of the century, they were all unique to the ship. And that made a huge difference to somebody like me who’s trying to research the background of the carvings, because there’s nothing much to say about one lion from a different lion. And yet the stories that can be told about the figureheads themselves are legion. They represented animals and birds, they represented military men, both naval and army, royalty, professions, Greek mythology. Everywhere you looked, there were different, in Georgian and Victorian times, people were most interested in these subjects. And so the whole

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wasn’t just men, as well women and it wasn’t just white men, there are different races all over the world. It’s a huge, eclectic kind of collection of humanity

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes it is, a lovely mixture of history and art. There are very few risqué figureheads, unlike the merchant ones which had quite a lot of girls with uncovered bosoms. You can’t imagine Queen Victoria, who appeared on about six different ships of her of her fleet. Can’t imagine her

     

    Sam Willis 

    Undressed. So there is a difference between the way that the figureheads appeared on naval ships and the way they appeared on merchant ships. I think one of the interesting things is that with the naval ships, we’ve got a name it’s often quite easy to match up the figurehead with the name of the ship but with the merchant ships, there were so many of them and there is there are so many gaps in the history that often you have figureheads that survive that you don’t know the name of the ship but you know, you know it existed. Yeah, I was looking at the collection in the Cutty Sark, underneath the Cutty Sark, a wonderful collection of figureheads, and they know who, I don’t want to put a percentage on it, maybe say 70% they know who 70% of them are, but 30% they just don’t know but they got magnificent figureheads

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes well, they were collected by Long John Silver.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What was his was his real name.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Pass.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Not John Silver?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Cumbers. The big difference between military and merchant figureheads is that when a new ship was ordered by the Admiralty, usually in those days, built in royal dockyards. They named it and they said what class of ship it should be from a Three Decker First Rate down to a Brig. And the name would be given depending on the type of ship. A big ship would be Indomitable or Royal Albert or something like that. Little ships would be bird names

     

    Sam Willis 

    or dog names as well. There was a big dog name period.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    So Bulldog is a survivor. Yes. And Beagle indeed had a little half bagel  on her bow, but so when the Admiralty had named the ship, not physically no, but they placed an order for a named ship. They would then invite the dock yard to carve a figurehead for her. But before carving there, the dockyard carver’s would have to send up to the Admiralty, a little drawing of the design drawing of the figurehead for approval. And so it was all regulated in that way. And happily, hundreds of those design drawings are in the National Archives amongst the Admiralty records. So it’s in the naval case, it’s very much more regulated and easy to follow, historically, than the merchant case. I concentrated on warship figureheads simply because it was a big enough subject and better documented, and it also matched my background. So I know very little, apart from admiring the artistry, about the merchant figureheads. And I’m very happy to got quite a lot of knowledge of the military ones.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The artistry is an interesting word, isn’t it? I suppose if you think of people building modern aircraft carriers now, you wouldn’t say that many of them were actual artists, they may they may argue the points and say actually, you know, they are they are artists of steel. But the way you know when you think back to the 17th century, in the 18th century, there the ships were magnificent. And when you look at the models that were made of the ships, maybe ones that presented to the king, whatever it was. There were seriously talented people working at these dockyards making these ships, and you’d get such a sense of that when you look at the drawings of the figureheads because they’re exquisitely drawn, and then they are made in three dimensions.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes. It’s interesting when you compare our figurehead, carver’s, we call them carvers in our language, the French call them sculptors, and there’s something subtle about that. If you look at French figureheads they are much more Classical sculptures than our ones either or, perhaps a bit rugged. And there’s something in the language the culture that you can tell a French figurehead from an English one because of the way they’re presented maybe. So there are subtleties with language and cultures.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonder if it was a matter of just giving someone a go so you’re good at you’re good at carving out planks in someone’s said, have a go at a figurehead, because some of them are not very good. They really aren’t. But some of them are really tremendous . Yeah. I should just say for everyone listening, we’ve made some wonderful videos on YouTube where we are, you can use digital artistry to bring to life the real person that inspired the carver or the sculptor of the figurehead. They are spine tingling, some of them I would urge you all to have a look at those. So David, how did you become first interested in figureheads?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Well, I suppose as I came towards the end of my time in uniform, I began to realise that I’d seen figureheads throughout my 30 something years of service. From the day I joined Dartmouth where there were two on the parade around there. One from an ex royal yacht Osborne and one from Britannia.

     

    Sam Willis 

    They still there?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yep. Well, the, the relics of them, they’ve been reconstructed quite a lot, but they’re still there. Yes. And so they were there, and then if you went on to other establishment HMS Raleigh had a couple, at Portsmouth there are a number around the naval base entrance in niches, on the wardroom walls. And so all over the place, there were figureheads, and I realised that there was no person or organisation that was dedicated to their preservation or, or indeed interested in them. That’s a bit sweeping because the MOD art collection did have very sincere interest but with very little money and, and not that interested in the naval aspects. So I started by, while I still had access to establishments, by writing around to places like naval stores depots, and armament depots, as well as naval establishment to see what they had

     

    Sam Willis 

    I tried to find them lurking in sheds.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Indeed they keep on disappearing in sheds these days. That’s amazing how being artefacts can actually get mislaid, but that’s another story. What I discovered after about a year of writing around and talking to people, there are about 200, British warship figureheads in existence, mostly in this country, mostly in museum collections. With a few in Australia, New Zealand, America, South Africa

     

    Sam Willis 

    and in the Caribbean.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Not really anymore. There are one or two that have moved from there to Halifax because of historical reasons.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I was wondering if any things that have left in Barbados around Tiago?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    No, I think not. There are one or two that purport to be, but aren’t actually. And that’s the case everywhere you know, that there are there are fakes. Well, there are things that have lost their history somewhere, put it like that. So, having got hooked on the subject, I then started trying to discover their history. And that led me very happily to the National Archives, Public Record office, as it was then called, where the admiralty records are, of all these design drawings coming through.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s in Kew in London for all of you people listening there, and you can literally turn up and you can get a reader’s ticket and you can go and have a look at them. So it’s all publicly accessible is one of the great joys of living in England.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    If I say to people, when I meet them, if you’ve never actually been to the National Archives, you should go because it’s somewhere where no matter what your interest is, you must be able to find something unique and original. And I’ve spent many happy day sitting, having pre ordered documents which come up in beautiful boxes. And you look at documents that haven’t been looked at for months, years. And they allow you to originally photocopy and now photograph with digital cameras. And I’ve been able to use the design drawings in the books that I’ve written as beautiful illustrations of how These things were designed and approved.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Take us through an experience in the National Archives and how if you talking about these design drawings, how big are they? Are they huge? Or are they small?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    No, they come in boxes that are bigger than A4 but not as big as A3,  They tend to be a standard box. And so they hold letters, essentially. And then they’re delivered up by machinery, which has, has little tractors that bring things up. And they appear in your unique locker that you log into. They’re delivered from the behind, on you, when it appears, you’re allowed to take it out, go to your designated desk

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hold your breath, and then open the box,

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Open the cage, and you never know, on first reading, what you’re going to find, and like all pieces of research, sometimes you strike gold and other times you are raking away at ashes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So do you get a box full of drawings of figureheads, or you trying to find a drawing of a figurehead within all sorts of other correspondents?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    You’re into maybe a bound volume or maybe unbound papers, letters between the surveyor of the Navy and the dock yards. And so they cover all sorts of subjects to do with cranes and lighters and things, not only figurehead designs, so they haven’t done filtering things. You have to do your own search. And that’s part of the joy of course.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Absolutely. Because you’re looking for figurehead but you might find something completely different. Yeah, that takes you off down another rabbit hole.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Indeed. I’ve got a son in the Royal Marines, and I found the Royal Marine officer in Chatham, asked for a special house to be ordered for him. There’s a sketch of it. The other place that it drew led me to is the National Maritime Museum’s collection of ship plans. Yep. Now they’re not at Greenwich, they’re At Woolwich in the old Woolwich Arsenal buildings, and housed the huge millions of them in great role sheets, because they’re all scaled 1:48, which is quarter of an inch to the foot. And so they’re big drawings, and you’re, again, have more difficulty accessing those but with and certainly the earlier ones have been photocopied, so that you can look at them not photocopied photographed, so that you can look on them on a screen  they are gradually getting put online. But that’s not complete yet. So that’s another huge resource, because in the profile plan, there’s a drawing about the same size as the design drawings of the figurehead. So, with the design drawings and ship plans, you cover hundreds of ships. And my reckoning is that there were about 5000 ships between the reigns of Henry the Eighth and Victoria when they finished, about 5000 ships with figureheads. So it’s quite a big subject to try and track down

     

    Sam Willis 

    and they do I mean, they start to disappear in the Navy, the early 1800s. The HMS Temeraire, she goes through a refit and they don’t spend a any money on the figurehead they deliberately they tried to save money on the decoration of the ship. So they give something called a fiddlehead which is more like a scroll at the end of a violin or something like that.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes, they those were usually left to very small ships which didn’t warrant the cost of a figurehead. And they had either a scroll head which scrolls downwards or a fiddle head which scrolls upward. I didn’t know about the Tameraire, but so the range of figureheads in the very early days of warship ones. Biggest ships had multiple figureheads with maybe a royal coat of arms in the center with a crown above it. And with supporters, usually Neptune on one side and Britannia on the other riding on a lion or a horse, but each with fish’s tails. So they were a sea lion and a sea horse. And the whole of that mixture with the odd cherubs around them was very expensive.

     

    Sam Willis 

    There was a lot going on.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Then down they came through to the individual ones in 1727. And they then ranged between a standing figure like royal William in Plymouth, that I’ll touch on a bit later. To busts, where the arms are severed at just above the elbow. So that you don’t have any of the difficulty of carving, arms, are cheaper. So they were full figures, half figures, busts and then downhill

     

    Sam Willis 

    Shrinking over time.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And depending on the size of the ship, basically. And you’re right, they kept on when the letters that go backwards and forwards. When they carvers submit their design, with an estimate, quite often, the surveyor of the Navy would cross out the figure and reduce it by a certain amount, because they allowed so much per figurehead for a frigate and that sort of thing.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Who was this? This chap in 1727? Right? Who sitting at his desk, someone like you. And when I’ve had enough of this, I’ve had enough of all of these stupid coats of arms. I’ve got a really fun idea. And it’s a bit of a mad idea, isn’t it? I mean, if you, we know that figureheads exist, that’s fine. But if you do put yourself in his guy’s shoes when they didn’t exist? And he said, why don’t we just have some people, whatever carving of an actual person in front of the ship, and someone else said, Oh, yeah, give it a go.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    I don’t know, I’ll have to ask a historian.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I’ll tell you what, if anyone’s listening, they’d like to do some research into that find out who the people were probably people, maybe one person behind this change in 1727. I’d absolutely love to note that. I think it’s a I like to know that because I reckon that the person who did it is someone worth finding out about. You don’t come up with a crazy idea like that unless you’re an interesting chap. And that means there’s someone lurking in the National Archives that we can go and discover. And yeah, he’ll be he’ll be full of full of vigour in life, I reckon.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Wonderful.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So David, where’s the best place to go and see these figures?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Well, the largest collection on display is at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth, that’s the Portsmouth dockyard, originally a portion of the dockyard collection, which turned into the the naval Museum, which turned into the Portsmouth part of the National Museum, the Royal Navy. They’ve got 46 figureheads on display, most of them in the victory gallery near HMS Victory. But a few dotted around, and a few more that are being stored whilst conservation is contemplated and money is found. Because they’ve rescued some that have gotten themselves damaged or rotting.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do we should just say about the conservation of these things? Well, when conservators work on them, they can peel off the paint and they can see the different layers of paint so you can work out how they would have appeared in the past. So a figurehead now does not necessarily what a figurehead looked like, you know, 50 years ago or 150 years ago.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Sadly, most conservations, in the past, haven’t kept very good records of what they’ve found. The problem with the Navy when they wanted to have a figurehead restored, they sent it to a conservation place person, who had a contract. And whether they ever asked for a report, or whether they ever got a report, I don’t know. But they never asked for paint analysis to be done. Because i life was too short for that sort of thing they were interested in getting the figurehead brought back to a beautiful condition where it could be saluted at the foot of the mast or whatever. So there’s been a great gap. I’ll come on to figure out colours in a moment if I may. But when the collection at Plymouth was being conserved recently, HMS Royal William the standing figure of King William the fourth, was analysed by the conservation people, and they found at least 30 layers of paint, each with dirt between them, by microscopically examining chips of paint. And they also help solve the problem which again, I’ll touch on the colours because in the case of Royal William here was white for the first 20 something layers of paint and only colour came into it after in the most recent years, so it’s you gain all sorts of information on history. Yeah, by looking at their fingerprints as

     

    Sam Willis 

    paint technology, what’s going on? They’re expensive having coloured paint. Why did they suddenly start painting it in colour?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Oh, come on to that when I finished this after the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, the next collection is those at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. And they’ve got 24 with an amazing wall of figureheads in the main atrium area. And so they’ve got the second largest collection and they’ve got a few tucked away in other galleries. So that’s another place well worth visiting if you if you want to see a range of figureheads. And the final one is the most recent assembly of figureheads at The Box in Plymouth,

     

    Sam Willis 

    very fine that is to

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    The Box was created from the old Museum, Art Gallery and Public Library. And it still envelops the Museum and Art Gallery. And in some inspired idea, by one of the designers, they borrowed from the Devonport collection, 14 figureheads, which they have conserved and

     

    Sam Willis 

    beautifully conserved. I mean, we should just say that when you’re going to see a figurehead nowadays, they’re not always in great condition, or these are just magnificent

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    they are, but they’ve cost a great deal to do it. I don’t think that the people who conceived the idea appreciated what they might find. There was in the 1950s and 60s, there was a habit of covering figureheads, with fibreglass and resin, because they felt that it would keep rot away, and they would preserve the figurehead warm and dry inside the shell. What they didn’t realise was that over time, and temperature variations and some damage would cause the fibreglass to crack, water would get inside and the rot would continue inside the fibreglass. So a number of the ones that were selected for preservation at The Box had fibreglass coverings, and those were removed, as you say, like the paint, but more so they took these shells away, finding a huge range of difficulties underneath which they’ve managed to overcome by modern technology. They had done all sorts of tests on dampness and the strength of the material underneath by sensitive drills that they put in to make sure how penetrated it was. But they didn’t, didn’t discover until there it was too late, how expensive was going to be. But as a result, you’ve got 14, wonderful figureheads now suspended in a very dramatic way so that people visiting can enjoy their luncheon drinks underneath this wonderful display.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s like being in a rowing boat underneath the bows of one of these mighty ships. They’re up there up high as they should be, which I think is really appropriate.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yeah, lovely. And as a byproduct, it has made us realise the hazards that still exist for some of the figureheads that are outside still. And it gives more grease to our elbow to be able to persuade people to get them indoors.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I mean, there are a finite number of them and  they need caring for. They need looking after, otherwise they’re not going to be here forever. What can you tell me about the colours?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    The colours caused me a little bit of a headache, because as you mentioned just now, most of the figureheads that have survived are brightly coloured. If you go to the National Maritime Museum, the Devonport collection, Portsmouth, you’ll find most of them coloured. And yet, when you look at photographs of ships in the latter period of the Victorian come Edwardian age. Many of them have white figureheads. paintings by artists who drew watercolour portraits of ships included, not great detail, but certainly white figureheads. And I couldn’t understand why. And there was I couldn’t do much research myself until the advent of putting things online from the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum, where you can call up the paintings collections of the National Maritime Museum, the photographic collections of the Imperial War Museum, and search them. I searched through 1000s of paintings online, which I couldn’t do if I had to go to Greenwich to order them up. And was able to I write a paper for notes for the Mariners Mirror on the subject. The conclusion was that of the figureheads that I’ve been able to look at, over half of them were painted white when they were at sea. So how did we end up with the vast majority of the ones that survived being painted in colour? And the answer, I believe, is that the vast majority of the ones in our collections today, came through the dockyard collections because it was there that the ships were broken up. And it was there, that the figureheads are tucked away in sail lofts in workshops,  or places where they would be safe. And it’s almost a natural temptation for a dockyard matey, to say she’s not looking very pretty today. Let’s tart her up a bit. And so I’m pretty sure that as a natural evolution, the figureheads got painted

     

    Sam Willis 

    when they were taken off the ship.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yep. And if you take King Billy, HMS Royal William, oh, he was certainly white on board. When he was first brought ashore, and he was it was not because of his condition, the ship was cut down in 1854, I think, from a Three Decker to a Two Decker, to allow machinery to be fitted, and the extra weight of the bunkers and coal to be added. Cutting down meant that the figurehead of a standing figure of the king was too large for at two decker. And so a bust was carved and we’ve got details of the bust. And so King Billy himself came ashore, and the first photographs of him standing outside number one covered slip, are white. And so it was only after he came there, he was  given blue, and I mean, he’s standing in the robes of the Order of the Garter. So they had all sorts of models on which to paint him. So it was he was painted in colour in the dockyard.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful. Yeah. Great, lovely story. What are the sources that historians can use to find out about figureheads?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Well, I’ve already mentioned two of the primary sources, the National Archives, Kew and the National Maritime Museum, ship plans at Woolwich.  Secondary sources, the authority of a book written in 1925 was this one, Old, Ship’s Figureheads and Sterns,  by

     

    Sam Willis 

    1. Carr Laughton It’s a beautiful, of course, appropriately, dark blue. hardback book.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    replica. I’m afraid it’s a modern replica, modern reprint.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s a It’s wonderful, though some really beautiful line drawings showing the ships. I’m looking at one here, then we’ve got some French figureheads from the late 17th century. So this is a good starting point, isn’t it?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    It’s got tremendous amount. Carr Laughton was an early member of the Society of Nautical Research. And that was one of his products. The other man at this sort of period a little early on. In 1911. Douglas Owen went around the dockyards, making notes about the figureheads and published articles in 1911 in the Mariners Mirror. So that’s another source. 1911 also was the first catalogue of pictures, plate, etc.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So, we’re looking at here is another appropriately dark blue book called the Admiralty Catalogue of Pictures, Plate, Relics, Etc. I love a book with Et cetera.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    The full title is inside

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, you don’t know what it’s going to be something miscellaneous I hope we are full title and trophies. So it’s a catalogue of pictures presentation plate figureheads, bottles, relics and trophies at the Admiralty on board HM ships and in the naval establishments at home and abroad. So they’ve done a survey of everything they’ve got.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And it’s a wonderful snapshot of what was where in 1911. Yeah, I’d say that’s, that’s a real good starting point.

     

    Sam Willis 

    448 Royal William. Full length male figure 13 foot, big 120 gunship build at Pembroke 1833. Stag number 408, The full part of a stag. six foot three inches. fifth rate ship 46 guns’ built at Pembroke again. 1830 Orc, I could spend all day doing this. The Atlanta, half-length female figure, four foot six inches sloop, 16 guns, removed, from the Navy 1869, and Ajax three quarter male figure 12 foot three inches, 78 gunship interesting, built in the Thames 1809 broken up at Devonport. Isn’t that great?

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    It’s a lovely, lovely reference.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And then we’ve got some more modern sources

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Yes. A chap called Peter Norton, who is I think also a retired naval officer, wrote that very interesting and nicely researched book in 1976.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So he’s nearly as old as me, David.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    He’d done some good research, without the access to archives that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

     

    Sam Willis 

    You know, he’s a very good bit here a point to be made as well. If you look at beautiful old oil paintings, particularly 17th century ships, then that’s a great source for figureheads. Here’s a picture of the figurehead of the Royal Prince, which is the largest Ship of her day designed or built by Phineas Pett, as a detail from a painting of room in the Frans Hals Museum in Harlem. And that’s a ship in 1613. So we really can go back a very long way to get some magnificent detail.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And then I have to be slightly personal because there are three books that I’ve written.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Oh, there we have three books

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    That’s my first one.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The warship figureheads of Portsmouth by David Pulvertaft. I just got a wonderful drawings in here.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    When I decided at that stage to work in collaboration with a watercolour artist and rather than having photographs of the figureheads. He sat in Portsmouth for some weeks, and drew watercolour portraits of

     

    Sam Willis 

    particularly fine one of HMS Centurion.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And we, therefore, we tried to get our foot into the marketplace by combining art and history. Yeah. And  it’s proved to get the foot in the door, because that allowed the publisher of my next one and the one that I’m most proud of that one

     

    Sam Willis 

    Figureheads of the Royal Navy by David Pulvertaft. Foreword by Admiral, the Lord Boyce So a magnificent thing here. And here we’ve got reproductions of photographs of these design drawings that you were saying that we found at the National Archives. huge variety of material here.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    What I decided in that book was not to produce 200 photographs of current warships figureheads, survivors, but because anybody who’s interested in reading that book can go off and find the ones because there’s a catalogue at the back, showing where all the survivors are. And so this goes into the designs and the artistry of the whole subject more than just the records

     

    Sam Willis 

    They are amazing. And you mentioned birds earlier. And here we have some fantastic ones of HMS Falcon. HMS vulture. I think my favorite HMS Cormorant. Look at this Yeah, it’s splendid, isn’t it with a rather kind of beaky aggressive looking cormorant on the front there

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    fascinating thing there is that the carver submitted two alternative designs. One is of a  cormorant, the bird. The other is of a Chinese fishermen who of course used cormorants to dive for fish, but they put strings around their neck so they couldn’t swallow them. And when they came up with them, they had to regurgitate them to the fishermen. But this one wasn’t approved.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s an extraordinary one. They use trained sea otters as well. You know, wasn’t just cormorants. I didn’t know about the cormorants. But yeah, the birth of the reproductions of animals. really tremendous. There’s HMS Beagle as well. Oh, HMS Greyhound. That’s a splendid one. HMS Racehorse, which is the head of a racehorse, as you might expect, but there’s also the option of having a jockey.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fabulous stuff. And all Hercules. He’s a fearsome brute. Yeah, huge variety and spent so much time looking through all these. And then he wrote a book on the figureheads at The Box in Plymouth as well.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    And the interesting thing that came out of that is because I was wanting to write just about the 14 figureheads, and they all come from the Victorian period, because that happens to be. By the time I started writing that little book, I was looking to see what which places each of the ships had served. And so one found that two of the ships in the book would have known each other in the Baltic during the Crimean War, where the fleet was sent to bottle up the Russians to prevent on sending ships around to to the, to the Black Sea. Others would have known each other out in the Far East during the Opium Wars. So all of a sudden, the relationship between those 14 figureheads can be seen. If you believe that figureheads can see each other which of course I do.

     

    Sam Willis 

    You should do. I’m just looking at the ones from Plymouth, you’ve got HMS Sphinx, built in Woolwich, launched in February 1846. To a wooden paddle sloop, her figurehead was a bust of a bearded male wearing a turban and a tunic with decorated lapels and waistband. That’s a particularly fine one and my other favourite one is HMS Calcutta. A third rate ship of 84 guns, 1831. Her figurehead was a three quarter length bust of an Indian ruler in  traditional dress

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    Just turn nearly at the back of that book. You’ll see a nice photograph of Royal William that I’ve mentioned. Oh, yes. Standing, Now standing at Plymouth at The Box.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. Tremendous stuff. Yeah. Brilliant. Well, David, I’ve hugely enjoy talking to you today. I’m inspired to find out more about these figures. And I can’t wait to show you the videos we’ve created. They’ll blow your mind, they really will. Thank you so much for your time.

     

    David Pulvertaft 

    It’s been a great pleasure, Sam very much. Thank you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Many thanks, everyone for listening. Don’t forget those videos bringing the figureheads to life that I mentioned before. You can find them on the Mariners Mirror podcasts YouTube channel, the Society for Nautical Research Facebook page and also we will be releasing shorter versions on Twitter and Instagram. Please make sure you go on to the Society for Nautical Researches website @snr.org.uk, where you can check out all of our previous episodes as well as seeing what else SNR is up to. And please if you are not already a member, please join the society. your subscription will support this podcast it will help publish the quarterly mariners mirror journal that the society has been producing for over a century, and it will help preserve our maritime past. But also and please don’t forget this. If you sign up to be a member you can come to our annual dinner on HMS Victory and that you will never ever forget. Thanks so much for listening as always. I’ll be back soon.

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