The Tradition Lives On

With a painted Smile & a wooden heart, a tradition of Ships Figureheads.
By Richard Hunter.

tradition_lives_on_2
Sal Polisis, Woodcarver in residence.
Looking out from the windows of his workshop, under the bows of two historic Museums ships “WAVERTREE” and “PEKING” in New York South Street Seaport district, Sal Polisis woodcarver in residence to the Museum, is in an ideal position to study one of his most challenging and interesting commissions to date. A full size replacement Figurehead for the Square-rigged sailing ship “WAVERTREE”, now part of the Museums fleet of historic vessels.

Built originally in 1885, as the “SOUTHGATE” by Oswald Mordaunt & Company of Southampton, England, and owned by the British company Chadwick & Prichard of Liverpool, in November of 1968 she arrived in New York after a full and interesting career at Sea minus her original figurehead, this is understood to have been removed during her time in Punta Arenas, Chile in the Straits of Magellan, while being used as a storage Hulk between 1911-1947. Several attempts have been made in the past to locate this original carving with a number of leads, but all have proved fruitless, fortunately for the restoration committee at South Street, and it’s Ship Historian Norman Brouwer, several historic black and white photographs showing the vessel throughout her working life have survived, in Archives around the World, taken from a distance they show the characteristic female figurehead common to many vessels of this size and date, at least the team in New York have an idea as to the kind of carving they are looking for, or if the original could not be found, what they will need to replicate.

 

With the original missing and armed with this material and a wealth of photos Sal Polisi was commissioned by South Street toThe Tradition Lives On carve a replacement figurehead in time for the OP SAIL 2000 visit to New York, between the 3rd and 9th July 2000, after careful study of all the available date, plus looking at a number of original Figureheads that had survived from this period, in public and private collections, a design was eventually agreed that would satisfy all the specifications in both size and subject. to help Sal understand the image needed for the carving a preparatory model of the face was made in clay, and used as a guide for the finial carving. Sal understood one quite fundamental problem he would have to overcome, if this replica was to have any authority, and at the same time look the part, he would have to think in the style of 1885, and not the year 2000, the role and appearance of women today differs considerably from that of there great-grandmothers of over 100 years ago, the original model for the carving would undoubtedly have been a sturdy female in both physique and attitude, it would be Sals challenge to give this new carving a period look needed for such an important commission.

 

The figurehead we see on the vessel at the moment is interesting, in that she is only the first prototype and carved as a trial run, carved in Pine once it had been established how accurate she looked, a second permanent figurehead will be made is a more durable and lasting wood, Sal will have the unique distinction of being the only carver in the World to have carved two replica Figureheads for the same vessel, once the second carving has been created and fitted, it is hopeful that Sals original carving will be found a home within the “WAVERTREE”, and used to illustrate the Art of Figurehead carving to the many thousands of visitors that go on board the vessel and her sister “PEKING” at South Street Seaport Museum New York.

 

The Tradition Lives OnThe subject of replication has not been purely in the hands of the American institutions, over the past few years, two projects in the United Kingdom have had to take this problem on board, one Naval and one Merchant; When H.M.S. WARRIOR was restored in Hartlepool, and moved down South to the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, in 1987.

 

Her place was taken by the frigate FOUDROYANT, also from Portsmouth and now reunited with her original name and title H.M.S. TRINCOMALEE, built in the Royal Naval Dockyards of Bombay India between 1816-17 she is a remarkable survivor. Under the care of the Charitable H.M.S. TRINCOMALEE Trust, first registered in 1992, as a direct successor of the old Foudroyant Trust. Work at Hartlepool has gone on at a remarkable pace to bring her back to the appearance she had when she originally arrived in Portsmouth in 1819, it is interesting to note that since the year she was built right up to the present day, she has displayed on her bow the same carving, created by a member of the famous Hellyer family of The Tradition Lives Onship carvers to the British Admiralty for just £12.00. We see a fine looking Indian with dark skin bright eyes and a wonderful white turban on his head, it was hoped that this colourful image would remain on the bow throughout the restoration project, however by the early 1990’s it was evident that a certain amount of rot had found it’s way into the back of the figurehead and around the bow area, thought not part of the original restoration time table, it soon became apparent that a new figurehead would have to be created for TRINCOMALLE. Fortunately the British carver Richard J Barnett had already cut his teeth with part of the decorative carving scheme on the WARRIOR, working from his workshop in Holsworthy in South Devon Richard had already carried out some carving work on the stern of the TRICOMALEE, and was found to be an ideal person to take on the interesting commission to re-create a replica of the original figurehead. Working directly with the original Figurehead in his workshop and around 20 cubic feet of 2” Quebec Yellow Pine boards glued with BALCOTAN 100, weighing in at just over a quarter of a Ton, Richard had the difficult task of rectifying elements of alignment and aesthetics, to early damage caused at an earlier date in the history of the vessel. After approx five and a half months this impressive new figurehead was brought up to the North East and placed on the bow of the TRINCOMALEE, the original after conservation work has found a new home within a dedicated museum to the history of the vessel ,and can be seen in comparison with it’s new neighbour.

 

In 1999 saw the installation of a beautiful new female figurehead on the bow of the Three Masted Barque “GLENLEE”, originally built at the Bay Yard of Anderson Rodger & Co of Port Glasgow in 1896, and now under the ownership of the Clyde Maritime Trust. We see a figurehead carved in a style and size quite different to that of the TRINCOMALEE, for many years The Tradition Lives Onthis vessel had been used by the Spanish Navy as a training ship for it’s Petty Officers, and renamed “GALATEA”, bought in 1992 by the Clyde Maritime Trust, she arrived back home in Scotland without a figurehead at all, fortunately for the Trust and the research team working on the restoration of this historic vessel, quite a lot of information was known about her original carving. It had been carried out by a local Glasgow carver John Roberts, being one of many sister figureheads Roberts created in the 1890’s, fortunately quite detailed historic black and white photographs had survived from the early 1900’s, showing the “GLENLEE” in her early life under British ownership, the original figurehead was thought by the Restoration Committee to have been lost, at around 1922 when she came into Spanish ownership, With a few years she was again re-sold, this time to the Societa Italiana Di Navigzzione, Stella Di Italia in Genoa, under the name “CIARSTELLA”. After consideration the local Scottish carver Marvin Elliot was commissioned to create a replica at his workshop on the Isle of Arran out of Western Cedar, working from a set of photos showing the original carving from a number of angles, plus aided by a small model Marvin carved to work out the proportions in 3D, after all the preparation work had been done Marvin was able to start work by the tradition method by building up several layers of cedar planks, the full size replica was to take just over four months to complete , spread over a full year period.

 

Once the full size carving was accomplished, she was moved down to Glasgow from the Isle of Arran to be painted before being installed on the beak. As the work was in it’s final stage news arrived in Glasgow that the original Figurehead had in fact survived, and was thought to be on display at the EL FERROL Naval Base in Spain. In due course the Spanish Admiralty sent the Trust a set of photos showing this particular carving, after careful inspection of the prints, it was quite apparent that the Trust were looking at a figurehead with the classic hallmark of John Roberts, If only this information had arrived several months earlier, how different the outcome would have been. Unfortunately it has not been possible to persuade the Spanish Naval Authorities to relinquish this historic relic, and send her back home to Glasgow, to be reunited with the “GLENLEE” it would appear that her stay over in Spain could well be permanent.

 

Whether it be the restoration of a historic Naval Vessel such as H.M.S. TRINCOMALEE in the North East, or the Scottish Merchant man “GLENLEE” , in Scotland or the “WAVERTREE” in New York, all three beautifully illustrate that the art and craft of Figurehead carving is still very much alive in the British Isles and the United States of America. As we move more into this new era, the materials and modern day production techniques may differ from those of our ancestors over a hundred years ago, however the essence, skill and spirit of Figurehead carving has survived in the United Kingdom and America, and are accessible to the public at various museums, dockyards and private collections thought out the World.

 

All three carvers have a wealth of skill
and talent in the art of Woodcarving.