A brief history of ships’ figureheads

Ships’ figureheads have a long history embodying religion, symbolism and superstition.

The ancient seafaring civilisations all had figureheads on their vessels. The Egyptians mounted figures of holy birds to provide protection and vision. The Phoenicians featured horse heads symbolising swiftness. The Romans and Greeks carved wolf or boar heads representing ferocity. These were often mounted on, or carved directly onto, the most forward part of the ship’s bow (front) – forming an extension of the keel (primary structure).

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing the dragon figurehead of William the Conqueror’s flagship, Mora.
Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing the dragon figurehead of William the Conqueror’s flagship, Mora. © Viking Ship Museum

In the 8th century, Viking longships displayed dragons and serpents. The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of William of Normandy’s conquest of England in 1066 and shows the invading ships with figureheads of lions and dragons. By the 13th century, it was popular in Northern Europe to feature a swan, signifying grace and mobility.

Naval Figureheads

As the design of sailing ships evolved over the next three centuries, hulls got bigger; ships became fully rigged with many sails and carried more cannon.

These naval galleons, whose figureheads were often carved animals or heraldic devices, were the basis of England’s rise as a great maritime power.

Stern of the Sovereign of the Seas, built for Charles I in 1637
Stern of the Sovereign of the Seas, built for Charles I in 1637. At the time she was the most powerfully armed ship in the world and her decoration was the most elaborate ever carved for a British warship. The figurehead was a gilded king on a rearing horse. © Public Domain.

Warships with over 100 guns (‘first rate ships’) were often highly decorated at bow (front) and stern (back) with a baroque riot of gilded carvings, including wreaths and the royal coat of arms. They were not just fighting ships, but symbols of power. By around 1700, the decoration of naval vessels had reached its peak and the Royal Navy began restricting such ornamentation.

A rare survival of a Royal Naval lion figurehead, dating from around 1740
A rare survival of a Royal Naval lion figurehead, dating from around 1740, Red Lion Inn, Martlesham, Suffolk. Listed Grade II © Adrian S. Pye.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the lion was the standard figurehead for lower-ranking Royal Navy warships. It symbolised power, speed and aggression. Pictured is one of only two British ones that have survived. The other is held at the National Maritime Museum in London.

Two cigarette cards displaying golden figureheads - a horse and a man - side by side
From ‘Ships’ Figureheads’ – 25 cigarette cards originally issued in 1912 by John Player & Sons, with historical information on the reverse. Left: HMS Seahorse, the ship Horatio Nelson joined as a 16 year old midshipman in 1774. Right: HMS Colossus, one of the ships under Admiral Lord Nelson’s command at the Battle of Trafalgar 1805. © Mark Dunkley.
Restored figurehead from HMS Ajax
Restored figurehead from HMS Ajax, launched 1809, on display at the National Maritime Museum, London. Ajax was celebrated in ancient Greek mythology and this depiction is one of the finest heroic carvings of figureheads. © Nicky Hughes.

Lion figureheads went out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. They were replaced by full-length human forms, especially classical or mythological figures and, as many sailors could not read, often represented the name of the ship.

In 1796, the Admiralty tried to abolish figureheads altogether on new ships, but the order was not wholly complied with – many sailors felt a ship without a figurehead would be an unlucky vessel.

Figurehead from HMS Unicorn, a frigate launched 1824, now on display as a museum ship in Victoria Dock, Dundee, Scotland.
Figurehead from HMS Unicorn, a frigate launched 1824, now on display as a museum ship in Victoria Dock, Dundee, Scotland. Public Domain

The age of wooden warships reached a peak in the late 18th/ early 19th century, culminating in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), after which time many fighting ships were gradually laid up or scrapped.

The figurehead of HMS Arethusa, a 50-gun Royal Navy frigate, was carved by the long-established firm, James Hellyer & Sons of London and Portsmouth. They were ships’ carvers to the Admiralty and also carved the figurehead for HMS Warrior (see below). The majority of figureheads over the centuries were created by unknown craftsmen.

Figurehead of a woman with brown hair and one bare breast
Figurehead from the 50-gun Royal Naval frigate HMS Arethusa, Lower Upnor, Kent.  She is a representation of a Greek mythological sea nymph and has been newly listed at Grade II © Historic England

Such figures, baring one or both breasts, had been popular in both merchant and naval ships. Sailors’ superstitions viewed women on board ship as unlucky, but a semi-naked sculpted female form was believed to calm storms at sea.

The ship was decommissioned in 1874 and loaned by the Admiralty to a charity as a training ship for destitute boys.

Following the discovery in 1929 that the ship was rotten and leaking, it was broken up. The figurehead was retained by the charity (now Shaftsbury Young People) who displayed it at their premises in Lower Upnor. It remains there today, and can be seen from the public highway.

blog hms warrior c david dixon
Replica figurehead from HMS Warrior, launched 1860, now held at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), Portsmouth, Hampshire. © David Dixon.

In the 19th century, as the technology of ships developed from sail and wood to steam and iron, the bowsprit started to disappear and with it the figurehead under which it had traditionally been placed.

The last Royal Navy ship with a figurehead was the HMS Espiegle. L’Espiegle means frolicsome and the carved figurehead woman wore jewel-encrusted bangles and a masquerade mask. The ship was broken up in 1923 and the figurehead put on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Merchant Ships

Figureheads from the Long John Silver Collection, dedicated as a memorial to the seamen of the Merchant Navy and on display in the Sammy Ofer Gallery beneath the Cutty Sark sailing ship, Greenwich, London. Images © Jerry Young

As figureheads declined on warships, they flourished on merchant ships. The 19th century saw the British economy rapidly expanding, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution and the Empire. Huge quantities of goods were exported and imported on British vessels, mainly square-rigged sailing ships. Figureheads were considered an essential part of any new vessel.

In the mid-19th century a new type of swift streamlined sailing ship – the clipper – was developed to facilitate the fast delivery of highly profitable goods, such as tea from China. This prompted a further revival of the figurehead, which often took the form of a female carving.

A view looking up at the masts of the Cutty Sark
A view looking up at the bow and masts of the Cutty Sark, showing her decorative figurehead. © Historic England AA065228 | Header image: AA9602032

From the mid-19th century, ocean-going steamers captured an increasing share of global trade. Their straight hulls meant there was no place for a figurehead and, towards the end of the century, the fitting of figureheads on British merchant ships largely came to an end.

Further information and contacts

Royal Museums Greenwich, National Maritime Museum

Valhalla Museum, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth

5 responses to A brief history of ships’ figureheads

  1. Dennis says:

    The Arethusa was not broken up. In 1975 it was sold to the South Street Seaport Museum of New York, where it was renovated and renamed the Peking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jo Reilly says:

    Very interested in this article – there’s a great figurehead in the Maritime Museum in Hull which is unmistakably Benjamin Disraeli, but I don’t remember there being any information as to which ship it came from or why Dizzy.

    Like

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