Visit any large maritime museum, and somewhere among the exhibits and displays, you can expect to find at least one intricately carved and painted figurehead from some long-vanished sailing vessel.
A figurehead, in the marine sense, is defined by the Oxford International Dictionary (1958) as “a piece of carving, usually a bust or figure, placed over the cutwater of a ship.” The reasons for attaching this embellishment to the bow are lost in prehistory, but in his book Ships’ Figureheads, Peter Norton mentions rock carvings found in caves on Lake Onega in Russia showing what appear to be the real heads of animals mounted on the bows of early boats of that area.
Figurehead use may have originated as a religious or mythological symbol employed to protect a ship from storms or voracious sea creatures. It may also have been an attempt to give eyes to a vessel to allow it to see its way on a voyage — making a figurehead, in a sense, a kind of supernatural navigational instrument. An early recorded reference of possible figurehead use can be found in Acts 28.11 of the Bible when Paul the apostle notes, “after three months we departed in a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle (Malta), whose sign was Castor and Pollux.” Castor and Pollux were mythological twin sons of Zeus, supposed to protect mariners from harm. The “sign” that Paul saw was almost certainly a carved or painted image of the twin gods mounted at the bow of the ship.
Through the centuries, sea-roving Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Vikings used numerous carved animal images as figureheads. An early merchant vessel might have carried on its stem post the carved head of a swan or crane, in the hope the gracefulness or swiftness characteristic of the chosen bird might be imparted to the ship. (Diving birds, such as cormorants and kingfishers seem not to have been popular.) A vessel of war would have carried something a bit more aggressive, like the head of a wild boar, a bull or serpent to intimidate crews of enemy vessels.
When William the Conqueror sailed from Normandy in 1066 to subjugate England, his ship carried a sculptured lion’s head, a departure from the usual dragon or serpent’s image popular in northern Europe at the time. The lion figurehead remained a favorite, gracing numerous English fighting ships during the next 800 years. As time passed, European advancements in ship design and building technique changed how figureheads were mounted. Development of the carrack design, for instance, meant the forward part of the forecastle could more easily be incorporated into a favorite creature’s head or body.
Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth I’s “royal pirate,” had a carved, golden effigy of a fleet-footed red deer mounted on his ship, Golden Hind, a symbol probably meant to engender his vessel with a swiftness that his Spanish prey could not possibly hope to outrun. In fact the Spanish, encumbered with sluggish, lumbering treasure ships, desperately sought to evade El Draco’s piratical molestations by seeking divine intervention, employing figureheads depicting saints and the Holy Trinity for protection.
In America, figurehead art initially imitated those styles and themes popular in England. For instance, during the American Revolution, the U.S. frigate Raleigh sported a finely rendered figurehead of Sir Walter himself, in warlike pose, an irony probably not lost on the British enemy. The young U.S. republic soon began producing its own unique brand of ship art, incorporating American themes like Indian warriors, presidents and native animals. Some shipowners chose to immortalize their wives, daughters and sisters by having them sit for marine artists who produced sometimes beautiful (and occasionally mundane) figureheads to decorate a family-owned vessel named for the lucky female.
A carving typical of a mid-19th-century female subject graces the replica barque Jeanie Johnson, which recently completed a commemorative voyage from Ireland to North America celebrating its namesake’s cruises, during which thousands of Irish emigrants were brought to the New World. Many mariners of this period actually credited the charm of buxom female figureheads like that of Jeanie Johnson with the capacity to calm the most turbulent waters.
Sadly, the advent of iron- and steam-powered ships heralded a steady decline in the production of marine figurehead art. Today we are fortunate simply to be able to view a vintage figurehead in a museum, or to glimpse a rare but authentic working figurehead — one displayed on the prow of a restored sailing ship or mounted sedately on the bow of a replica vessel like Jeanie Johnson.
J. Gregory Dill