Weighing a combined total of more than 20 tonnes, the figureheads were originally carved in the 1800s and are on loan to The Box from the National Museums of the Royal Navy. They’ll start arriving on Monday 21 October and will take two weeks to be delivered and installed.

A man in a blue top works on a naval figurehead of a female form

The figureheads have been saved from decay by three specialist conservation teams based in London, Devon and Cornwall. Over the last two years the teams have painstakingly analysed, repaired and repainted them – removing years of water damage and returning them to their former glory.

Once built to adorn the bows of naval warships, from spring 2020 these icons of maritime history will be suspended in a huge sweep in The Box’s main entrance space.

13 figureheads will hang from the ceiling, secured in place with just three cables, to create the effect of a fleet of carvings floating in space. The 14th and largest figurehead will stand on the floor with a huge display of nearly 300 ship’s badges behind it.

Councillor Tudor Evans, Leader said: “The figureheads are 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. 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 in a nod to Plymouth’s important maritime history and as the place where great journeys start from.”

A large naval figurehead of a male standing figure in white, red and blue with a gold crownThe largest figurehead is from HMS Royal William. Known as ‘King Billy’ he’s a 13 feet tall, 2 tonne standing figure of William IV carved in 1833. Others include an ancient Greek-inspired figurehead from HMS Sybille, which played an active role in the capture of Canton during the Second China War (1856-1860), and the figurehead from HMS Centaur which fought pirates off the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855.

Due to the scale of the figureheads, conservators have pioneered a new technique using Sonic Tomography scanning – a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees. Prior to this it had never been used to conserve large-scale wooden sculptures.

The technique enabled the teams to accurately assess the amount of deterioration inside each figurehead. This, along with an analysis of the surface paint layers, enabled them to develop the most appropriate treatment methods. It’s an approach that has not only saved the original carved surfaces and the figureheads themselves, it’s also uncovered previously obscured craftsmanship that might have been lost forever.

After securing the structural integrity and carrying out all the repair and restoration work each figurehead has been repainted using a newly-developed colour palette.

Councillor Tudor Evans, Leader continued: “Throughout the ages Plymouth has been shaped by its maritime location and military connections and the figureheads will give visitors to The Box a great insight into both of these. They’ll also provide real ‘wow’ factor for people when they step through the doors due to their scale and wonderful heritage-inspired colours. I can’t wait to see them on display.”

You can find out even more about the figureheads here.