Men and women of the waves

Few figureheads survived the harsh environment of the ocean, but those that have give a glimpse of a lively art form, lost today.
Twinned figurehead of SS Great Britain, courtesy Mike Peel
From pre-history, ships have had some form of bow decoration. These may have been apotropaic (meant to ward off harm), intimidating, or simply beautiful, but they’re found everywhere old wrecks are raised. Maori war canoes carried carvings, as did boats of Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. The prows of Viking long ships reared up into dragon’s heads. The Romans honored swans; Greeks used bronze boars; Phoenicians decorated with horses, and Carthaginians used Amun the ram. Ancient Egyptians painted eyes to see across uncharted waters.
Figurehead Hiawatha, charcoal on paper, by Sir William Russell Flint, private collection. The joke’s on that ship-builder; Hiawatha was a man.
It was with the development of the galleon in the 16th century that the figurehead took its modern form. Galleons were large ships with lots of real estate above the waterline. Critically, they have a stem protruding forward in space. That meant there was room to pin a statue (or two) under the bow. At the height of their popularity, figureheads were enormous and extremely heavy.
Figurehead of HMS Black Prince, 1861, named after Edward the Black Prince, victor over the French at Crecy and Poitiers. Imagine seeing that come at you in the English Channel.
The British navy realized fairly quickly that all that weight way up front affected the steering. An outright ban wasn’t feasible, because figureheads were popular. But by the Napoleonic wars, figureheads had been reduced to manageable size. They survived throughout the Age of Sail. Even the fast, light, and economical clipper ships of the 19th century carried them.
Figurehead Lalla Rookh, charcoal on paper, by Sir William Russell Flint, private collection
Figureheads weren’t just female; they covered a wide range of persons, deities, saints and animals. Caryatids, allegorical figures, putti, gods, and warriors were all borrowed from high culture. The carvings were sometimes portraits of the person the boat was named after. But above all, figureheads  represented the interests of their times, often in a lighthearted way.
Eagle figurehead from the USS Lancaster, circa 1880 by carver John Haley Bellamy, courtesy Mariner’s Museum. Any sailor would know instantly that this was an American ship.
The purpose of a figurehead—as with all naval heraldry—was to identify vessels through symbols. Much of the navy during the Age of Sail was illiterate. It was extremely useful for the man on watch to be able to tell whether the boat bearing down on them was friend or foe.
Figure head of the witch Nannie Dee on the clipper ship Cutty Sark. She’s carrying a mare’s tale, and the boat is named after her chemise.
A few efforts were made to attach figureheads to steamships, but the custom didn’t really survive the Age of Sail. Twentieth-century warships needed battering rams at their bows. The curved stem and bowsprit, so useful for hanging sculpture, were obsolete.
Inca warrior figurehead from BAP Union, training ship of the Peruvian navy. Courtesy Gallery of the Ministry of Defense of Peru.
Today, few examples of figureheads remain, as they were constantly subjected to the battering of the sea. And, with few exceptions, the men who carved them remain anonymous. But poke around a maritime museum and you’re bound to find a few examples of this folk art form, sadly lost forever.