A Brief History of the Ship's Figurehead

Over many centuries, a Figurehead has graced the bow of both Oared and Sailing Ships, a feature of the skill of the artizans of the time. Sailors believed them to bring good luck to their ship and all who sailed therein. In this small piece I seek to briefly explore the origin and growth of this colourful development, which in its own way became an artform.

The figurehead from HMS Victory

The figurehead from HMS Victory

Defining the Ship's Figurehead.
Although a modern definition uses terms such as: "A carving, usually a bust or full length figure at a ship's prow." ( The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary ) or: "A sculptured image decorating the stemhead of a ship." ( Encyclopedia Americana )

This type of artform dates back much much further in time.

A Seahorse Figurehead in the Piran Maritime Museum, in Slovenia, it is 110 by 140 by 58 centimetres, and painted dark green and brown.

A Seahorse Figurehead in the Piran Maritime Museum, in Slovenia,
it is 110 by 140 by 58 centimetres, and painted dark green and brown.

Development of the Ship's Figurehead.
The Phonecians probably were the first users of a type of Figurehead when they started the cult of adorning the prows of their oared galleys with wooden carvings that depicted animals, birds, dieties, and even serpents.

The Egyptians and Chinese were great sailors, and they instituted the practice of painting eyes ( Oculi ) on the bows of their vessels, so that they may find their way across the oceans.

Over the period 1400-1600, many nations vied with each other for supremacy of the sea, they included:- Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England, plus the powerful city/states of Genoa and Venice.

An intimidating figurehead featured on many of the ships emanating from those nations' dockyards.

Figurehead from the Sailing ship Elissa, built in 1877, and found at the Texas Maritime Museum at Galveston.

Figurehead from the Sailing ship Elissa, built in 1877,
and found at the Texas Maritime Museum at Galveston.

The Catholic influence on the Ship's Figurehead.
Catholic countries such as Spain, used religious figures such as Christ and the Virgin Mary to adorn their ships, eg The Spanish Armada, these ships carried some wonderful religious figureheads. The Armada moved against the English Fleet with the hope of subjugating Protestant England, victory would ensure the restitution of the Catholic faith in that country, but it was not to be, the Spaniards being routed by Queen Elizabeth's ships.

Golden Hind.
Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind was probably so named, as its figurehead was a gilded Deer.

An expensive ship.
In the reign of Charles the 1st, the Soverign of the Seas is reported to have cost some 65,586 Pounds to build, a fortune even in those times, the Golden Lion on her prow, together with the other gilding on this fabulous vessel added up to 7,000 Pounds.

Soverign of the Seas

Soverign of the Seas

The Golden Age for Figureheads.
It was probably the years between 1790 to about 1825, that figureheads on both warships and merchant ships built in North America and England, reached their zenith, peaking with the building of the Clipper ships. Wonderful figureheads gracing the bows of these beautiful and proud sailing ships.

The figurehead starts to wane.
Late in the 19th.century, the ship figurehead was on the wane, they had pointed the way in the race to conquer the Seven Seas, and many an ancient mariner believed they had ensured their ship had safely reached harbour at the end of each voyage.

Figurehead on Falls of Clyde, at the Honolulu Maritime Museum.

Figurehead on Falls of Clyde, at the Honolulu Maritime Museum.

The fine figurehead from Count Felix von Luckner's WW1 Armed Raider Seeadler.
In WW1, the fabled German mariner, Count Felix von Luckner had sailed and fought his elegant sailing vessel ( fitted with a diesel engine ) Seeadler, as an Armed Merchant Raider. He preyed upon Allied shipping, becoming quite a scourge to ships sailing alone, sinking some 14 ships to total about 30,000 tons, before coming to grief upon a reef at Samoa in the Pacific Ocean in August 1917.

Seeadler was fitted with a fine large wooden figurehead.

By chance, the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser, HMAS Encounter, the next month was sent to inspect the wreck and salvage her guns. Two young sailors from the cruiser visited the wreck, and decided to cut off her figurehead, and managed to smuggle their trophy on board.

When the cruiser returned to Sydney Australia, the two intrepid smugglers were trying to get their booty ashore, but were caught, only to have their prize confiscated. This great example of the wood carver's art then finished up at the Australian War Museum in Canberra.

It was only recently this story was related to me by the son of one of the two sailors who had purloined von Luckner's Seeadler's figurehead. I contacted staff at the AWM, and asked if it were possible to locate this figurehead in their storage facilities, and could they tell me how it was acquired? and finally, if located, may I please have a photograph E-Mailed to me?

A staff member quickly phoned me to say she would search their records etc. Within a few days I had an E-Mail , the figurehead had been found, a coloured photograph attached, alas no record on how it had been acquired.

Figurehead of Seeadler

Seeadler's figurehead

It is quite amazing that the figurehead from a sailing German Armed Merchant Raider from WW1 would come to rest in Australia's prime War Memorial in our National Capital of Canberra.

I have always been interested in the exploits of Lieutenant Commander, Count Felix von Luckner as Captain of the Seeadler, and my writing about him on AHOY. Mac's Web Log, has elicited more comments from around the world than any other topic about which I have written. This man and his exploits so long ago still arouse immense interest.

Thus, how lucky was I to be approached by Henry Cooper, the son of Ordinary Seaman Cooper, who with his shipwright mate had acquired this figurehead from Seeadler in 1917.

I was unaware of any figurehead, let alone that it rested in our AWM, it is a fine example of an art, no longer practiced in the 21st, century.

See the web site "Maritime Topics On Stamps" to see stamps containing figureheads.


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