Restoring the ‘souls of ships’

The Box

The Box | Tavistock Place | Plymouth | Devon PL4 8AX 01752 304774 Email Facebook Twitter

14 figureheads weighing a combined total of 20 tonnes will be on display in the main entrance of The Box when it opens to the public. Carved in the 1800s, and on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, they’re amazing examples of craftsmanship.

Figureheads have been mounted on the bows of ships from the earliest times. For centuries they provided an image of the fighting spirit of their crew and nation. They were also believed to provide guidance and comfort to mariners, many of whom were superstitious, and took on something of the ‘soul’ of the ship.

Although ship design eventually made them redundant around 200 Royal Naval figureheads still survive today. They’re mostly in museum collections and naval establishments in the UK with a handful more overseas.

Most of the figureheads in The Box travelled the world in the 1800s to places such as North America, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Hong Hong, India and West Africa. Some of the ships they were part of served the First Opium War (1839-42), the Second Burma War (1852-3), the Crimean War (1853-6) and the Second Opium War (1856-60).

Over the last couple of years they’ve been on another interesting journey that has sometimes taken them into unchartered waters – as part of a hugely ambitious restoration project.

Conservation teams in London, Devon and Cornwall have carried out analysis and conservation, removed internal decay, restored the figureheads’ structural integrity, re-designed their existing mounting systems so they can be suspended from the ceiling, and repainted them using a new heritage-inspired colour palette with gold leaf to highlight any details.

The teams pioneered a new technique to accurately assess the amount of deterioration inside each figurehead. Sonic tomography is a scanning technique that uses ultrasound. It’s normally used to measure decay inside living trees. Prior to the figureheads project, it had never been used to help conserve large-scale wooden sculptures.

This, along with a detailed analysis of their surface paint layers, enabled the conservators to develop the most appropriate treatment methods.

It’s an approach that not only saved the original carved surfaces and the figureheads themselves, it also uncovered previously obscured details that might have otherwise been lost.

Residents and visitors to Plymouth will sadly have to wait a little longer than planned to see these Greek Goddesses, Kings, Queens, warriors and mythological figures up close, but there are a number of videos documenting their restoration and recent arrival in Plymouth here.

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