Almost a Lost Art

In the late summer of 1999, at a workshop in the South Devon village of HOLSWORTHY near Exeter, the culmination of just over five and a half months of arduous and hard work was coming to a satisfactory conclusion, Richard Barnett a local Devon woodcarver with an International reputation and gift for carving the unusual, was putting the finishing touches to a vast replica figurehead for the British Naval Frigate HMS TRINCOMALEE under restoration at the Jackson Dock, Hartlepool in the North East, few carvers in the World are fortunate enough to be given such a fascinating and in many ways unique opportunity to demonstrate an almost lost skill and art, as to replicate a figurehead of this size and importance.

For centuries Ships figureheads had played an important part in the folklore and traditions of the sea and seafarers, fastened high above the waves on the bow of a vessel, its ancestry can be traced back as far as the ancient, Phoenician, Greek and Romans, little is known as to the origin of such carvings, undoubtedly it had some kind of religious meaning to the ancient seafarers, this meaning has been lost in the sands of time, Figureheads where placed at the bow of a vessel to pacify and appease the trouble sprits of the sea, perhaps the first figureheads to be seen off the coast of Devon, belonged to a Roman trading vessel working its way around the coast, in time this primitive suspicion would be replaced with a more decorative and functional reason for placing a wooden carving at the bow of a vessel.

By the Nineteenth Century, a Figurehead could be found on almost every vessel at sea, from the small local trading schooners of the West Country to the vast imposing Full-rigged Ships and fast Clipper ships from the great Ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol, built for speed racing home from China full of Tea, each carved in relationship to the name of the vessel, resulting in a plethora of Ladies and Gentlemen dressed in there best, many of whom can still be seen today in Maritime Museums and private collections around the World. Hidden deep within the character of the sailor still lingered that fear of the unknown, a Figurehead no matter how small or insignificant was still found to be better than no figurehead at all, even if we see it today as only a carved wooden image, centuries of suspicion don’t disappear overnight.

Built in the Royal Naval Dockyards of Bombay India, between 1816 and 1817 by the East India Company and constructed of Malabar Teak, the Wooden Wall Frigate HMS TRICOMALEE is a remarkable survivor, saved from the hands of the breakers Yard in 1897 she would be used for many years as a training vessel based at first down in Falmouth and then Milford Haven before being towed in 1932 to Portsmouth Harbour, and a long period commissioned with the IMPLACABLE, she continued being used as a training vessel under the name FOUDROYANT and in the ownership of the FOUDROYANT Trust until 1986 when it became increasing difficult and costly to maintain her fabric at sea, by 1992 it was decided to initiate a full restoration project to bring the vessel back to it’s original appearance when she arrived in the United Kingdom in 1819 for service in the Royal Navy. This was to be done under the auspices of the Charitable HMS TRICOMALEE TRUST, created to bring this project to fruition, On first inspection of the vessels fabric it was initially thought that the original carving on the bow created in 1816 would remain on the vessel throughout the full restoration programme, subsequent investigation around the bow area, discovered that an unacceptable amount of rot had infiltrated and infected both the bow area and the back of the original figurehead, a decision was therefore made by the restoration committee to remove the original carving and replace it with a replica.

The traditional art of figurehead carving, as a commercial trade had ceased to be viable from around the end of the nineteenth century, with the steady decline of traditional sailing ships to steam, though not entirely lost as an art form, the carving of ships figureheads has it’s own particular facets of construction and problems unique to carvings in wood of this size and use, the Trust have been fortunate in that Richard Barnett had already done a certain amount of decorative carved work around the stern area of the vessel, and had previously worked on the restoration of HMS WARRIOR also at the Hartlepool yard and now on display at the Historic Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth, home of HMS VICTORY and the Royal Naval Museum, Once the original Figurehead had been carefully removed from the bow it was taken down to Richards workshop at Holsworthy it would serve as an ideal pattern to re-create this new replica.

Created for the British Admiralty by a member of the famous Hellyer family of ship carvers, the original figurehead cost just £12.00, it was typical of the three-quarter bust carving used on all vessels of this size and design, incredibly of the restoration committee the original carvers sketch showing the design for the figurehead has also survived in the Admiralty archives at Kew and show what is described as “A Bush head with 2 drops” this small carvers sketch shows a fine side view of the Figurehead. It is thought to represent Jamsetjee Bomanjee, her Parsee builder and shows a strong dark moustached face with bright eyes, under a vast white traditional headdress entwined with a string of beads or peals, a simple white garment is decorated with a neck and armbands of beads in gold on a green background, with a rich red mantle over the shoulders leading down to the base of the Figurehead and the bow of the vessel.

Working on any carving of the size of TRICOMALEE has its own problems, 20 cubic feet of 2 feet Quebec Yellow Pine boards, glued with Balctotan 100, and weighing in at just over a quarter of a ton would be a starting point, Richard was initially faced with one aesthetic problem, that would need to be addressed at the onset of the project, if the commission was to be as authentic to the original as possible, at some time during the career of the vessel, the head of the figurehead had been damaged, with the headdress sloping out of alignment, it would prove relatively easy to rectify this damage, carefully a new TRINCOMALEE would emerge from Richards workshop as magnificent and every bit as imposing as the original.