The Changing Purpose and Interpretation of Ships’ Figureheads

A Research Summary

By Erica McCarthy

Glossy and colourful, eighteenth and nineteenth-century ships’ figureheads are something of an anomaly in museums and galleries around the world. Detached from their ships and starkly out of context in most exhibition spaces, figureheads appear odd, out of proportion and yet incredibly appealing. Unlike most forms of sculpture, figureheads were regularly repainted along with the ship to which they were attached, therefore, their colour scheme changed repeatedly over time. Their original appearance was not nearly as bright; high gloss paint, of course, did not exist and the variety of colours available to the ship painter was limited. The evolving appearance of figureheads overtime is noteworthy and often continued long after the figurehead was removed from its ship. Often unrecognisably restored, made to stand uncomfortably on newly made plinths and painted in garish colour schemes by private collectors, these unique sculptures are, as standalone objects, unsurprisingly interpreted quite differently than what was originally intended. It is this changing interpretation of ships figureheads, specifically in Britain, that is addressed through my doctoral research, part of a collaborative PhD funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Maritime Museum, London and the University of Hull, UK. Through an evaluation of the production, use and display of figureheads it has been possible to establish how the purpose and interpretation of ships’ figureheads has changed in Britain since the mid eighteenth century. The British tradition in comparison to its Continental and American equivalent has also been examined.1

Through a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century instructional treatises and contemporaneous publications, the training that ship carvers in Britain underwent has been explored. It is evident that youths who undertook ship carving apprenticeships learnt a specific set of skills necessary for this work. Possibly as a result of their specialised training, they didn’t branch out into other areas of carving as often as their European counterparts did. It is evident form this research that these carvers were not unskilled folk artists but rather part of an established, professional trade.2

Previous studies on ships’ figureheads in Britain have focused on naval carving, with authors such as David Pulvertaft making a valuable contribution to the subject. The closely related merchant ship carving, however, has not received the same attention. Through a detailed examination of a sample of over 4000 merchant ships registered for foreign trade in London, it is now possible to address some previously unanswered questions; specifically, what subjects were most prevalent and how this changed over time and when exactly the tradition began to decline. The results of the study clearly indicate that there were distinct trends in figurehead carving that changed throughout the hundred years from 1787 to 1887 and the subjects were directly influenced by contemporary events and societal changes.

The ships’ figureheads that did not perish along with their vessels took on a new purpose and were kept as mementos of the ships themselves, historic events or as memorials to tragic happenings. As standalone museum objects they have continued to be of interest to the public; as permanent fixtures in the National Maritime Museum, London as well as in a temporary capacity in the British Folk Art exhibition in Tate Britain. Their glossy, colourful appearance may not be original and certainly their function has changed from when they were designed in the ship carvers’ workshops and yet, somehow, this evolution makes these unique sculptures all the more compelling.


1. [This doctoral thesis titled The Changing Purpose and Interpretation of Ships’ Figureheads will be available through the University of Hull in December 2016. ]
2. [For a detailed discussion on this subject see McCarthy, Erica. "Ship Carvers in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain." Sculpture Journal 24, no. 2 (2015): 179-94]

About the author: Erica McCarthy is currently a graduate student at the University of Hull. She completed her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Geography in University College Cork in 2006. She was then employed by the Underwater Archaeology Unit, National Monuments Service, Ireland where she carried out research for the Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland and was Finds Supervisor on the excavation of the sixteenth century Drogheda Boat. After working for the Underwater Unit for three years she began working for the Newport Museum and Heritage Service on the digital recording, 3d modelling and laser scanning of the fifteenth century Newport Medieval Ship and its associated artefact assemblage in Newport, South Wales. During her employment in Newport she completed, with distinction, an MSc in Maritime Archaeology from Bournemouth University.