Figurehead

Most of the ship’s figureheads that have come down to us are anonymous. However, the makers were well known to the commissioners. “Mr. Spinney carve me a figure for my new bark, the Emma D. Grace.” The graceful figure of lovely Emma washes ashore near Java in 1882, but the origin or the ship she graced is unknown. So it goes. Go to any maritime museum and look at the ranks of figureheads, billet heads, quarter boards, transoms, and other carvings that have survived. We may know the ship, but the carver is known only to history.

I learned this lesson early on while carving quarterboards and trailboards for small craft at Spinney’s yard. Stuck on a wall was a selection of carvings Spinney’s grandfather had salvaged from ships that had wrecked on the Widows, a treacherous reef. Spinney pointed out that the slipshod productions had probably been burned when they washed up; firewood was firewood. Only those that caught the fancy had been hung on the shed or over the door. He mentioned this as I preened over my latest. The board was for a sloop called Rose, and the name and a carving of a rose decorated the piece.

Spinney wasn’t cruel, just pointing out the nature of our business. Water has been described as the universal solvent, and it does tend to dissolve the identity of anything submerged in it long enough. So it’s better to take the simple approach. For a time, your work will be appreciated. But only a few boatbuilders, sailmakers, or carvers will get any long-term recognition. 

Take pleasure in the admiring glances on the waterfront and the overheard comments on how sweet that board looks. It may not be our fate to be remembered for ages. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reach for that.

3 Replies to “Figurehead”

  1. Such a shame that ships don’t have those stunning figureheads anymore. Some of the ancient figureheads we know of were simply magnificent. I would love to watch carvers creating some of them for modern ships.

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    1. At the turn of the last century, some ship lines and navy’s toyed with different types of bow art, but it didn’t take as a long-term trend. I don’t think they were interested in spending the money.

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      1. Oh, I have no doubt its a money thing. I suppose bow art can effect the streamline of a ship and therefore its speed and handling might be affected aswell.

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