Royal Navy Figureheads moved for New Lease of Life
Two spectacular figureheads which formerly adorned the bows of naval warships are on their way towards starting a new lease of life in Plymouth’s exciting new cultural and heritage attraction, The Box.
The famous ‘King Billy’ and ‘Topaze‘ sculptures have been selected from the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre’s figurehead gallery for a special pilot project. They will now undergo some vital analysis work before being restored. The results of the analysis will also help inform how 12 additional figureheads are restored so they can also be displayed in the main entrance of The Box when it opens in 2020.
Warrant Officer Mark Portman said: “The figureheads are a popular highlight with visitors to the Heritage Centre, but their colourful exteriors are not original and the paintwork hides possible internal decay, a multitude of repairs and layers of
“In order to restore them to their original condition we need to use scientific techniques such as X-ray and sonic investigation methods. These will identity what fillers, fibreglass and paint have been used over generations of care and repair. Backed up by research this will enable us to ensure we use the best and most appropriate restoration and conservation methods to preserve them for the years to come.’’
Councillor Glenn Jordan, Plymouth City Council cabinet member for culture said: “The figureheads are more than just wooden sculptures; they’re iconic symbols of the history of the city and the Royal Navy. They’re also fantastic representations of the craftsmanship and skill of the sculptors who made them.
“Right from the start when we were developing our original concepts for The Box we wanted to have a ‘flotilla’ of figureheads suspended from the ceiling of the new entrance. Now ‘King Billy’ and ‘Topaze’ have been moved so this important analysis work can take place it’s a huge step towards realising this ambition – and a wonderful opportunity
for us to work in partnership with the Naval Heritage Centre.”
‘Topaze’ was made for HMS Topaze, an 1850s wooden 51-gun warship, whose crew in 1868 removed two statues from Easter Island, which now reside in the collections of the British Museum. ‘King Billy’ is a standing figure of William IV and was originally the figurehead on the 120-gun warship HMS Royal William, which served for many years as guard ship at Devonport. A glass fibre replica of ‘King Billy’ stands inside the Devonport Dockyard wall at Mutton Cove, on the banks for the River Tamar – still keeping eye on Naval traffic.
The Devonport Naval Heritage Centre is managed by the Royal Navy. A new curator has recently been appointed by the National Museum Royal Navy to oversee the Devonport collection together with a large team of dedicated volunteers.
Volunteer John Williams, guide and exhibition organiser said: “We’re extremely proud of our naval heritage collection and welcome the professional investigation and restoration of the figureheads that will now take place. Although we’re sad to see ‘Topaze’ and ‘King Billy’ go we are still open as usual with a number of fascinating objects and exhibitions on display. We‘re looking forward to seeing the figureheads on display in The Box and excited about the wider public access and greater awareness of Plymouth’s naval heritage this will bring.’’