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Sculpture on the High Seas
by Bob Brooke


Sometimes referred to as "Neptune's wooden angels," ships’ figureheads have been in use since antiquity. As the popularity of wooden boats waned in the 19th century, so too did the popularity of wooden figureheads. New forms of transportation and ornamentation replaced wooden ships and figureheads began to appear in galleries and museums.

The Origins of Ships’ Figureheads
While the origins of ships’ figureheads are somewhat obscure, historians believe that seafarers placed the head of an animal sacrificed as an offering to the gods on board to guarantee a safe journey. Sailors eventually placed these heads at the bow of the ship where their eyes could keep a lookout ahead.

Earlier ships often had some form of bow ornamentation, such as the eyes the Phoenicians and Greeks painted on the bows of their ships and the Roman practice of putting carvings of their deities on the bows of their galleys. The Egyptians placed figures of holy birds on the prow while the Phoenicians used horses representing speed. The Ancient Greeks used boars' heads to symbolize acute vision and ferocity while Roman boats often mounted a carving of a centurion representing valor in battle.

Eventually carved animal figures appeared at the bow of most ships. In northern Europe, serpents, bulls, dolphins and dragons were customary and by the 13th Century, the swan represented grace and mobility. But it was the galleons of the 16th century that introduced ships’ figureheads to shipping. Before that ships didn’t have an actual stemhead structure on which to place them.

Sculptures of lions, unicorns, and dragons remained popular as figureheads in England until the 17th century, at which point larger ships began to be fitted with life-sized ships’ figureheads of horses being ridden by the members of royalty the ship had been named after. Trends quickly changed to include group figureheads with sculptures of knights in armor and double headed horses.

By the 1760s animals had gone out of style and human figures representing ships’ names or otherwise symbolic became popular. Throughout the period of wooden sailing vessels nearly every ship had a figurehead mounted on its prow. Some sailors even believed that voyage on a craft without a figure could be fatal.

In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, seafarers once believed that spirits or faeries called Kaboutermannekes lived in the figureheads. The spirit guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds. If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors' souls to the Land of the Dead. Dutch sailors believed to sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned their souls to haunt the sea forever. Early Vikings believed this, also.

At the height of the Baroque era, some ships boasted gigantic figureheads weighing several tons and sometimes duplicated on both sides of the bowsprit. It was common for high-ranking ships to be decorated with elaborately designed groups of carvings. These sculptures, which included figures such as gods, goddesses, monarchs, putti, horses, winged horses, and mermaids, were often life-sized and full of symbolism for the fleet to which the ship belonged. Charles Le Brun, Jean Berain, and Pierre Puget are some of the most notable ship artists from this period and decorated ships that largely occupied the Mediterranean ports of Marseilles and Toulon.

A large figurehead, being carved from massive wood and perched on the very foremost tip of the hull, adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship. This and the high cost led ship builders to commission smaller figureheads during the 18th century. Some ship builders stopped using them altogether around 1800. After the Napoleonic wars they made something of a comeback, but were then often in the form of a small waist-up bust rather than the oversized full figures previously used. The clipper ships of the 1850s and 1860s customarily had full figureheads. To make these lighter, carvers replaced hardwoods with pine. This continued until the era of wooden ships.

American Figureheads
Though the first American ships’ figureheads were often crude, they were good examples of their carvers’ pioneering spirit and pride in their new country. Not only did these folk sculptors carve what they saw but also what they knew and felt—similar to the folk painters of the era. Every coastal town along the Atlantic aboard, during the 1700s and 1800s, had a thriving shipyard where carvers maintained shops, hung out signs and advertised in papers.

Figureheads on steamboats often featured the portraits of U.S. presidents. Warships had naval heroes and statesmen. John Bellamy, considered one of the finest folk sculptors, produced fierce eagle figureheads of pine and gilded them for Navy ships.

Female Figureheads
Women were favorite motifs, reflecting, perhaps, the longing for wives and sweethearts inevitable on voyages that often lasted several years and sometimes ended in disaster. Sometimes, the owner of a whaling vessel would commission a figurehead of his wife or daughter. One known example shows a woman with her prim straight figure dressed in the long 19th-century dress, her hands tucked neatly in a muff. Fast-sailing clipper ships usually carried beautiful maidens or Indian princesses.

While most people imagine wenches and mermaids on the prows of sailing ships, it really wasn’t until the late 18th century that female subjects began to appear on the bows of ships. Sailor superstition dictated women, or their effigies, on board, would bring bad luck. As late as 1916, after nearly capsizing, the captain of the vessel Inna Bentley cast its figurehead of a young girl into the sea. As women became a more common presence on sea voyages, their figureheads became more common.

Towards the end of the 18th century, ships’ carvers began creating full-length, single figureheads on larger ships and bust portraits on smaller ones. They carved many of these in the Neoclassic style of the early 19th century. Mythological figures represented in the carvings were usually the same as the name of the ship for which it had been created—Apollo, Zeus, Mars, Mercury, Achilles, Andromeda, Venus, and, naturally Neptune and Poseidon.

Traditionally, sailors thought of mermaids as sirens, dangerous seductresses whose song could lure them to shipwreck on coral reefs and rocky coastlines. Oddly, another myth claimed that a nude or semi-nude woman would calm turbulent seas. By the mid-19th century, it seems sailors had widely forgotten the siren myth and instead adopted the bare breasted mermaid figurehead as a talisman to fair weather. The mermaid eventually became the most common female figurehead.

Clothed women also made popular figureheads in the 19th century. British ships often carried figures of female royalty like the Queen Victoria figure commissioned by Junius Smith for his famous paddle steamer British Queen. The Queen found his likeness of her in her coronation outfit flattering. Because of her frequent contributions to sailor’s homes and maritime benevolent institutions, the Swedish songstress Jenny Lind appeared on over 35 figureheads in the 19th century. Though some sailors clung to superstitions about women and the ocean, female figureheads became sailor’s mascots rather than harbingers of bad luck during the 19th century.

Political Figureheads
Figureheads of prominent political figures often ornamented the bows of ships. Well-crafted carvings were as important to national prestige as were well-engineered vessels. Whaling ships like the Thomas Jefferson and steamer ships like the Abraham Lincoln and the Henry Clay believed that statues of powerful men would bring them luck and wealth. American and European naval ships named for or simply hoping to flaunt their most prominent citizens carried figureheads bearing the likenesses of politicians and military officers.

The End Finally Had Come
By the mid-19th century, both the role and subject matter of nautical figureheads had changed dramatically due to the growth of the carving industry and the decline of wooden shipbuilding. By 1890, most sculptors relied heavily on show figures for their income. Those in port towns took to carving life-size wooden Indians and Turks for use outside tobacco shops.

By 1915, wooden figureheads and shop sculptures alike had fallen almost completely out of use, but not before modern artists discovered their value as uniquely American pieces of folk art, representing America's history.

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