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Guardian: "Huge UK Naval Figureheads Rescued From Obscurity To Go On Display"


War Hero
"Thirteen wooden figures that once adorned warships have been suspended from ceiling of new Plymouth museum

In their heyday they gazed out grandly from the prows of British warships as the vessels whose fighting spirit they were supposed to embody powered into battle.

Now as part of an £1m restoration project an extraordinary collection of 14 wooden naval figureheads has been rescued from damp obscurity and given a glorious new lease of life.

Thirteen of the figures, weighing a total of 20 tonnes, have been suspended from the ceiling of the atrium to a new museum and gallery in the maritime city of Plymouth, Devon.

At more than two tonnes and four metres high, the 14th figure, William IV (King Billy), is too hefty to be hung from the ceiling of the Box and has instead been given a prominent position at ground level.

The museum opens to the public in May but before then passersby will be able to glimpse the figures through the Box’s large windows.

Steve Conway, conservator at the museum, said he was delighted with the effect. “They seem to sweep in from each side,” he said. “We want people to gaze up at them as they would have looked up at them from the quayside when they were on the prows of their vessels.”

Conway’s favourites include HMS Defiance, who has a bushy beard and plumed helmet. “He needed extensive restoration,” said Conway. “His timber was incredibly decayed and concrete had been used during a previous restoration for his armour and breast plate.” Defiance needed a lot of care to be save.

But Conway also has as personal reason for being keen on the figurehead as his mother, Joan Harvey, served during the second world war on a ship that inherited Defiance’s proud name. “It’s a nice connection,” he said.

Conway also likes the more modest HMS Minerva, a smaller figure that never actually made it on to a ship. He thinks the figure’s creators jumped the gun and made it before the commission had been confirmed.

Some of the figureheads were so ravaged by spending decades at sea, in addition to being poorly looked after following their retirements, that their insides had turned into a soggy mulch; one or two were still so wet that water poured out when they were pierced.

Experts used a method called sonic tomography, usually employed by arborists to check the integrity of living trees, to map the internal state of the figureheads. Their insides had to be dried in large purpose-built chambers to minimise warping and shrinkage.

Another challenge has been restoring the colour of the carvings. Experts carried out microscopic analysis of the paint the figureheads had been decorated with over the years.

Some were found to have started off-white, but the decision was made to keep them colourful. The hues used are based on those to be seen on a set of 1912 cigarette cards depicting navy figureheads.

The figureheads have seen a great deal of history, their ships taking part in campaigns in China, Crimea and New Zealand. They would have seen good and bad – from battles with pirates to the sight of their crews plundering treasures from others.

Abby Coombs, who was involved in designing the exhibition, recalled the moment she first came across some of the figures in their old home at the Devonport dockyard. “The contrast with their surroundings was striking – inside this unassuming engine house were these huge objects that spoke so much about Plymouth’s heritage, its relationship to the sea and its role as a gateway to the rest of the world,” she said.

The decision was made to bring them out into the light and airy spaces of the Box. “As we worked with the architects on the layout of the new building, we began to realise the potential of the atrium,” said Coombs. “The space is triple-height and filled with light, and this gave us the idea of positioning the figureheads up high, as though they were still on the prows of a flotilla of great ships.”

Actually finding a way to do that was a challenge.

“We collaborated with structural engineers to develop a system of mounts and suspension points that were fixed directly into the atrium ceiling. Meanwhile, the conservation team assessed the figureheads for structural integrity and began a programme to stabilise them and fit them with the internal and external supports we needed to put them in position.”

Tudor Evans, the leader of Plymouth city council, said the effort had been worthwhile, arguing that the figureheads were much more than just wooden sculptures. “They’re iconic symbols of the history of the city of Plymouth and the Royal Navy. They’re also fantastic representations of the craftsmanship and skill of the sculptors who made them over 200 years ago.”"

Aye Soliel - The figureheads of Merchant and Royal Navy ships projected our commerce and power across the world. A few more restored & well-preserved examples here.


(Like Sgt. Pepper this could make a good album cover for the Venus figurehead and other bawdy shanties...)

Deleted 59428

'Twas on the good ship Venus
By gawd you should have seen us
The Figurehead was a whore in bed
Doing unspeakable things to an elephants penis.


How long you been there? Pain in the arse to park, but major totty zone.
I’ve owned the place since 97 but was living abroad and renting it out for a long time, moved back 3 years ago. Parking is OK as have a secure garage on the ground floor of the block.
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