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På norske skip
A review by Richard Hunter Figurehead Historian
“Gallionsfigurer på norske skip” or for those of us who cannot read Norwegian “Figureheads on Norwegian Ships” by Gothe Gothesen is a newly published book from the Norwegian publishers Sem & Stenersen of Oslo, this is a far as I know the first major work on the specific subject of Norwegian Figureheads to be published, Gothe is a very well respected Scandinavian Maritime Historian with a number of other maritime related books to his credit, common with most Maritime Historians Gothe has always had a particular interest in this fascinating aspect of our rich maritime heritage.
Norway with it’s vast coastline is primarily a maritime people, it’s major towns and cities are ports such as Oslo the nations capital, with others such as Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim, over the centuries countless numbers of sailing ships have berthed within the wharfs and quays of these important centers of business and trade, in all probability each one carrying at it’s bow a traditional figurehead of some kind, the owners wife, his son or daughter, or even himself, Kings warriors and great statesmen, to the humble a simplified billet or fiddle head, carved to cut cost by a frugal owner but still in essence a Figurehead, each one unique, each one with it’s own story to tell, over the years Norwegian ship owners bought a significant number of ships from builders outside Norway, plus previously owned vessels, changing their names in the process, this has resulted in a good number of surviving figureheads in Norway’s private and public collections, originating outside the country, this is well illustrated in the case of the Barque GUDRUN, originally built in Quebec Canada in 1880, she was sold to Norwegian owners at Kristansand before being loss of Western Australia in August 1900 her figurehead is now in the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle, Canadian build Norwegian Owned loss in Australia, the vagaries of a figureheads life.
25 Chapters in all tell the fascinating story of Norway’s own figurehead heritage from its early days during the Bronze Age through to the well documented Viking era with its notable survivors in the form of great dragon heads, right down to the present day. Norwegians can quite rightfully boast that they alone have continued the tradition of Ships Figureheads on the bow of modern day vessels when to quote Gothe “only one shipping company took it up on a grand scale: Fred Olsen, headed by ship owner Thomas Olsen. The company’s house magazine, “Linjen”, has given several reasons for this: First, a desire to protect an honoured tradition. Second an opportunity to give a ship a character and style. And last, but not least, it gave Norwegian sculptors an opportunity to display themselves, showing their talent to an international clientele.”, the prestige of Norway has been well served by this continuation of a noble tradition, from its earliest forage out of the safe waters of the fjords down the coast of Norway to Southern Europe and then further a field across the great Atlantic ocean, to the modern day cruise liners of the Olsen Lines, few countries can boast such a strong and continued folklore.
With just over 163 pages the scope of Gothes research is extensive yet manageable, as it moves down the centuries from the seventeen and eighteenth century, to the great ship owners of the nineteenth century, the sailors dream, shipwrecks and dramas to Animal motifs and onwards to Figureheads used on the sail training ships of today, of particular interest to any Figurehead historian or aficionado must be the chapters towards the end of the book dealing with well known Norwegian Figurehead carvers, such as Hans Johan Johannessen and Christen Daae Magelssen, Gothe has been able to bring together images of surviving Figureheads as well as beautiful sketches showing proposed commissions.
With hundreds of images throughout the book each chapter has a rich assortment of photos and illustrations, from rare nineteenth century historic black and white views of Figureheads still on the bow to specially commissioned colour images showing surviving figureheads in Norwegian Museums and collections, the quality of production is faultless, a special mention and credit must be given to the designer Marit Jorgensen for the imaginative layout of the book, with a modern and fresh feel, each chapter flows effortlessly from one subject to the other, this book will become very much the standard work on the subject, and rightfully so, at the moment the publishers are looking into the possibility of producing a full English edition of this book, this reviewer has been fortunate to see a full English translation of the text, and would very much welcome such an edition, enabling others to enjoy a fascinating addition to the Worlds figurehead bibliography, Gothe Gothesen and Sem & Stenersen should be congratulated on a fine piece of original and fascinating research and book production, for ANY one remotely interested in the subject of Ships Figureheads or the Maritime heritage of Norway this is a must have purchase.
Details of how to buy the book in Norway, readers should contact the publishers direct at.
SEM & STENERSEN FORLAG AS.
Mail box 2735, St Hanshaugen 0131 OSLO, NORWAY or e-mail
Price at 400 KRONER £42 UK POUNDS $68 USA DOLLARS
For more information on a future English edition please keep looking for future announcements on the “Hunter Figurehead Archives” web site as and when this information becomes available or write to me direct and ask to be put on the list for further information as and when it becomes available.
© Richard Hunter.
Figurehead Historian… October 2010