Figureheads of the Royal Navy By David Pulvertaft

A review by Richard Hunter Figurehead Historian

by david pulvertaft 1Not all that long ago looking for a book on the subject of Ships Figureheads was very much limited to a few “General” works on the subject, exploring as they did the tradition on both Merchant and Naval vessels, offering the reader a narrow insight into both subjects, for anyone interested in primarily Naval Figureheads “Old Ship Figureheads and Sterns” by L G Carr Laughton published in 1925 has been the principal source of information, dealing with the style and construction of decorative carved work on and around the bow and stern of vessels, as well as British Naval Figureheads, Laughton also deals with the tradition of decoration in other major European nations, such as France, Spain, The Netherlands and Scandinavia,  with a number of re-prints over the years this I am sure will continue to be one of the primary  sources of information, when Laughton began to write  his book during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Communication was still relatively limited, request for information via a letter was the norm with occasional telephone calls, or visits in person to the few museums available, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich was still a dream it would be at least 20 years after the books publication that the British Nation would have a National Museum worthy of a people with such a rich maritime heritage.

Today the situation could not be more different, communication via e-mail is almost instant to anywhere around the World, the internet has opened up enormous areas of new and un-published material, the possibilities are literally endless, however this freedom of speed and choice should and does not negate any author from the hard and at times tedious work of “original” research. In his new book “Figureheads of the Royal Navy” David Pulvertaft has illustrated with great skill and understanding that at the end of the day there is no substitute for “original” research, this book is full of such research, and will like it’s predecessor Laughton’s “Old Ships Figureheads” become the new and worthy successor on the shelves of any Naval historian or self respecting figurehead enthusiast.

In 2009 David published his first book on the subject “The Warship Figureheads of by david pulvertaft 2Portsmouth” illustrated by Kevin Dean, dealing as it does with surviving figureheads now held within the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, some 36 carvings in all, the publication of this book has very much the precursor of things to come, in his new book David has been able to open up and expand his remit to cover the full and fascinating story of Britain’s Naval  Figureheads a heritage of carvings from the reign of Henry VIII to the last days of the nineteenth century,  what is remarkable about this work, is how David has been able to produce a narrative that keeps what could be a complicated subject in to a series of readable chapters, allowing the reader to travel through  the ages.

From chapter one “Ship names and the Figurehead carvers task” explaining the reason for the Figurehead in the first place and it’s complex  relationship with the service and it’s men, moving on to “Figurehead Carvers” a fascinating account in to the working practise of the men and in some cases women who produced these wonderful works of art, from the vast and complicated concoctions of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth century to the humble bust carvings of the late nineteenth century, workshops throughout the United Kingdom but primarily around the South Coast, from the great Naval Dockyards at Plymouth in South Devon, Portsmouth in Hampshire, to Chatham in Kent and the smaller yards at Sheerness and Woolwich, each yard  producing  an enormous amount of carved work for an insatiable  Navy,  the names and details  of some of these carvers have survived in the account book and archives of the Admiralty, held in the National Archives in Kew, and other depositories,   names such as  John Fletcher, Richard and Elizabeth Crichley and George Williams, to the famous Hellyers and  Dickerson families  each with generations of service to the crown,  the recent appearance of a hitherto unknown private archive of the Dickerson family has brought with it a vast amount of new and fascinating  material  much of which is published for the first time in this book, this flow of detailed information is complimented with a wealth of original and until now un published pictorial reference that will keep the reader mesmerized with the sheer quality and scope of material, David has resisted the use of “stock” photographs  showing well known and much published carvings, and has left it to readers to go and see the original carvings for themselves insitu,  what he has found are wonderful and evocative early black and white photographs from the late nineteenth century onwards of lost carvings and collections, offering  us a unique opportunity to see something of the past,  each page has a wealth of such imagery,  by far the most important reference material in this book are the countless number of original carvers drawings and sketches, showing how the carvers had to translate from a  given name, a full interpretation in three dimensional wood and paint, from the ridiculous to the sublime,  the ridiculous being HMS Kangaroo of 1854, with a full length figurehead of a Kangaroo from the Hellyer workshop at Blackwall on the River Thames, costing a mere £6. 10, to the sublime colour view of the Dickerson original design for HMS Kent of 1819 with it’s massive full length figure, costing  £35, with a photograph showing the very  figurehead taken in  1936 before it’s loss in the Blitz on the Dockyard at Devonport in 1941.by david pulvertaft 3

In his introduction David mentions the fact that we in the United Kingdom are fortunate in that we still have around 200 surviving Naval Figureheads, and that the vast majority are held within our  own shores, some can be found in Museums and collections scattered around the World, from New Zealand, South Africa to the United States of America, we are also fortunate in that a number of Historic Naval vessels have also survived, showing how Figureheads  should look in their natural environment,    HMS Victory from 1800 onwards and now at Portsmouth, presently undergoing a full restoration around the bow  area, looking in the near future to have a new figurehead produced, allowing a modern day carver to show that the skills of the past are  still available in the present,  HMS Trincomalee of 1817,  in Hartlepool, a modern replica at the bow, with  the original carving on display nearby,  next in line is HMS Gannet at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham Kent dating from 1878 her original Figurehead somehow found it’s way over to Flensburg in Germany,  today  she carries a fine replica carved by a local craftsman in the Dockyard,  also at Portsmouth HMS Warrior of 1860 the last member of this illustrious quartet  of  British Warships,  regretfully and with a certain amount of ignominy  the original Figurehead of Warrior was  allowed to fall in to a state of such decay that he was eventually condemned and unsafe only to be destroyed in the early 1960’s, the present Figurehead we see on the restored vessel to day was a tour de force of the modern day carvers skills by the local Isle of White team of the late Jack Whitehead and Norman Gaches, working in the 1980’s.

by david pulvertaft 4If the above has not been enough to satisfy the appetite of his reader, towards the end of the book, in the “Figurehead Directory” David has produced a reference sources that illustrates the organizational skill of this historian,  this is an A to Z of figurehead references with details of known information on the individual figureheads of each ship, this comprises of four components, A)  if the original Figurehead still survives and it’s known location at the time the book was published,  B) if a Figurehead has survived until relatively recently, and has been illustrated or photographed, with again information on it’s last known location,  both A) and B) are open to future research and amendments as and when new information or data become available, ( this is very much an ongoing  research project )  the last two are C) original surviving carvers drawings showing the style and subject of  the Figurehead, and D) details from ship plans and  ship models in both private and public collections throughout the World, with relevant details as to locations  and Museum catalogue  reference numbers, the abbreviations and sources are easy to follow, the book finishes with a full bibliography on the subject of Naval Figureheads and related source material and locations, as well as a full and comprehensive  index.

On the back page of the dust jacket Seaforth the publishers, offer a statement of intent in that they are “devoted to producing the very best reference books and narrative histories about ships and the sea” in this new book “Figureheads of the Royal Navy” Seaforth have truly given us the reader the very best reference book on British Naval Figureheads, that great gap in the market has been well and truly filled, congratulations to all involved in  the production of this wonderful publication.  

Figureheads of the Royal Navy
By David Pulvertaft.

ISBN 9781848321014  HARDBACK    256 pages

Published by
Pen & Sword Books Limited,
47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS.
This book is now available to buy from
www.pen-and-sword.co.uk  now with  20% off,