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Figureheads are magnificent things. Most of the world’s maritime museums boast several ranks of them, in a wide variety of styles, sizes and colours. They are frequently all that has survived of the vessel that once carried them like the ghostly spirit of a long-vanished ship. Study them closely, and you cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and effort that went into carving them.


The origin of the figurehead is ancient. The Greeks and Egyptians are known to have painted large eyes on the front of the earliest ships. This is understood to have offered reassurance to their sailors, (then, as now, a superstitious breed) that this would permit the vessel to see its way in poor weather. From this simple beginning, more elaborate carved figures developed, often trying to convey something about the ship. The Phoenicians favoured carved horses, to indicate their vessel’s swiftness. The Egyptian’s preferred birds to show this. Greek triremes, fighting off the might of the Persian Empire, displayed a carved wild boar for its stubborn ferocity. Early Roman warships often had the figure of a centurion, symbol of military order and discipline.


In the years after the fall of Rome the practice of carrying a carved figurehead spread from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast of Europe. Serpents, bulls, dolphins and dragons were all popular, although the limitations of ship design often meant that only the head of the animal could be displayed on the prow. The British Museum has a 5th century figurehead found in Belgium which features the head and neck of a large fierce bird. A few centuries later, Norse raiders were terrorising the coasts in ships bearing fierce dragon heads before them, with lolling red tongues and blazing eyes. The Bayeux Tapestry shows that a descendent of those Scandinavian raiders, the Norman (old French for Norsemen) William the Conqueror, chose a nobler figurehead for the vessel that took him across the Channel in 1066. His ship can be identified from the rest by the lion on its prow.


The lion remained a popular figurehead amongst vessels of all nations during the early modern period, along with other heraldic animals such as unicorns, swans and dragons. By the 17th century, as the golden age of sail dawned, ships grew ever larger, allowing figureheads of a much more impressive size. Now they could be used to convey a powerful message about the ship and those who built her. The Spanish had figureheads of a religious nature, with representations of saints or the Virgin Mary being popular. The Sovereign of the Seas, the great ship of Charles I’s navy, carried the Saxon King Edgar, who Charles believed to have been the first king to rule over a united Great Britain, something he dearly wanted to repeat. The Naseby was one of the ships of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth navy. It was adorned with the great man himself in full armour and on horseback, trampling over six little figures dressed to represent a Scot, an Irishman, a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and for good measure, an Englishman too.


The figurehead was not just the preserve of the military. The merchant marine commissioned them for their ships as well. Some were of animals, others of figures representing parts of the globe, such as Native Americans, Indian warriors or Turks. In the 19th century they were sometimes modelled on prominent figures, like Lord Nelson, Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln. They often reveal much about the ship’s owner. For example, we can deduce that Jock Willis, whose favourite tea clipper was the Cutty Sark, had a considerable love for the Robert Burn’s poem Tam O’ Shanter. The poem has a scene in which the main character is chased home by witches, one of who catches the tail of his mare. The figurehead shows the witch, arm out stretched, with the horse’s tail dangling from her grasp.


With the move from oak to iron, and from wind to steam, the days of the figurehead were numbered. No sails meant no bowsprit, and the resulting remodelling of ships’ bows left little place for such elaborate decoration. The sloop HMS Cadmus, launched in 1903, is thought to be the last Royal Navy ship to carry a figurehead. In the merchant service too the rise of modernity and the move to steam left little place for the expense of figureheads, and they quickly disappeared.


What connects all these figureheads, from those of the 19th century back to the very birth of the ship in the ancient world? Surely it is the superstitions of the mariners that sailed in them. From the war galleys of the Greeks to Nannie, the witch on the prow of the Cutty Sark, the form of decoration may have changed, but one feature has remained the same. They always have eyes, so that their ships can see their way home.


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