Behind The Scenes, 16 October 2019: Restoring the ‘souls of ships’
by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer
As you may have seen from the news release we published at the start of the week, we’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of 14 Royal Naval figureheads. The story went national and we’ve had some fantastic press coverage over the last few days. Here are some links:
The Guardian: Restored 19th century ships’ figureheads to go on display in Plymouth
Daily Mail: Giant 19th century figureheads are being painstakingly restored
Arts and Collections International: Naval figureheads restored and shipping out for Plymouth
Here’s a great feature that appeared on Channel 5 News as well:
The restoration work the figureheads have undergone over the last couple of years is an amazing story in its own right. Their history is really fascinating too.
Figureheads were mounted on the bows of ships for centuries. They provided an image of the fighting spirit of both their crew and nation, regardless of whether the ships were involved in warfare, exploration or trade.
Figureheads were also thought to provide guidance and comfort to mariners, many of whom were superstitious. It was believed they took on something of the ‘soul’ of their ships.
Although ship design eventually made them redundant (many of them were replaced with ship’s badges), around 200 figureheads of the Royal Navy still survive today. Many have been repaired and restored over the years. They are mostly now in museum collections and naval establishments in the UK. A handful more are overseas.
The 14 figureheads that will be displayed in an impressive ‘flotilla’ when The Box opens next year have benefited from the expertise of conservation specialists in Devon, Cornwall and London. We’ve previously shared posts that highlight some of this work and you can read or revisit them using the following links:
The work of the conservation teams has included analysis, conservation, removing internal decay, restoring the figureheads’ structural integrity, redesigning their existing mounting systems so they can be suspended and repainting them. The team at Orbis Conservation in London even tracked down a set of 1912 cigarette cards featuring the navy’s most famous figureheads from the previous century. They included an image of Calcutta, one of our figureheads (centre of the second row in the left hand image below). They used these as inspiration for a new colour palette.
Throughout this ambitious project our aims have been to:
- secure the long-term future of these grand sculptures
- help promote Plymouth’s naval heritage
- widen public access and understanding
The figureheads are enduring examples of both maritime heritage and 19th century craftsmanship. Their restoration has revealed some wonderful details – all of which you’ll get to see when you visit us in 2020!
Hans Thompson and Maxwell Malden, Co-Founders and Directors of Orbis Conservation said: “In terms of scale and complexity, this project has been one of the most challenging we’ve encountered. Throughout this project we have uncovered the previously obscured craftsmanship and virtuoso carving of these formidable figures. The fact that we have been able to save so much of the original 19th century carving to be appreciated anew by visitors to The Box, has made this project especially rewarding.”
We’ll be posting more updates about the figureheads on our social media channels over the next couple of weeks. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram using @theboxplymouth.
You can also stay up-to-date with all our figureheads news here.