Restoration of Queen Victoria

Reading Jo Darkes fascinating book “The Monument Guide to England and Wales” A national portrait in Bronze and Stone, first published in 1991, The University Town of queen_vic1berystwyth on the Mid Welsh coast has but two brief mentions in this interesting register of the Nations monuments to the great and the good, the first being the only known full length statue on the British mainland dedicated to H.R H Edward Albert, Prince of Wales future King Edward VIII late Duke of Windsor, standing in the forecourt of the original college (now University building) over looking the Irish Sea.

The second to be mentioned and just as unique, is referred to as the towns most charming street statuary, representing as it does a full size Merchant vessels ships figurehead in the form of the young Queen Victoria in full coronation regalia standing on a small iron bracket high above the street looking down at the corner of Baker Street and Eastgate, on a building formerly known as the “Victoria Inn” public house and now used as business offices for a local firm of accountants. Jo Darkes understandably suggest that she may well have been salvaged from a vessel named “Victoria” a not too unusual superstition given the carvings subject and that she had been removed from a vessel at a local ship breakers yard, however any date and location of such a yard has proved extremely difficult to substanciate, it is however reasonable to speculate that she was acquired by the licensee of his new Inn and used as it’s original sign from the opening date. We can see from local documents that the name “VICTORIA INN” first appears in the local town census for 1881 suggesting that she has been in Aberystwyth from at least this date, and would cancel out any vessels built in the United Kingdom after that date. However what is quite obvious looking at the subject matter of this particular figurehead high up on the building is that she is most definitely a representation of the young Victoria, and has been carved with what one would imagine was great care and skill by a true and hitherto unknown craftsman, at the height of his profession to be given such an important commission.

queen_vic6Victoria was to become one of the most enduring and popular monarchs in British History, a long reign spanning as it did the last half of the nineteenth century. During her sixty years on the British throne she could be seen immortalized in wood on the bows of countless vessels both merchant and naval throughout her vast Empire.

When the inn closed at the beginning of the nineteen twenties and the building turned over to purely commercial use, Victoria remained in situ as a local landmark impervious to the changes around her, and the building became known as “Victoria House”, The task of finding the true identity of this particular carving has become quite daunting in it’s complexity, when one considers the numerous combinations and sequence of names she may have carried, they run the full gamut from the “BRITISH QUEEN” to quite simply “VICTORIA” with many others in-between, the list could be endless. Any attempt to date the carving by her appearance has also been complicated by the fact that as in the case of both the coinage and stamps of the time throughout the Empire the image of the Queen for popular consumption only differs towards the end of her reign, and as such has become a secondary factor to complicate the question as to her true antecedence and past history, opening out the overall date she could have been carved within a 30 to 40 years period.
Any merchant vessel given as it’s subject a figurehead of the young Queen would undoubtedly be of great interest and pride to it’s owner and crew alike, she would be worthy of mention and critical acclaim in both the local and national Press of the time. We are fortunate in that several detailed and at times quite florid descriptions have survived, of such vessels the following giving an idea of just a few.

In the June 1844 The Illustrated London News, reference is made of the merchant ship “MONARCH” recently launched in Blackwall, yard of Green & Co with a magnificent figurehead representing the young Queen Victoria, sceptre in right hand and orb in the left she was admired by all that had the good fortune to see the vessel launched. Moving over to Liverpool, and the year 1860, the local ship carving business of “Allen & Clothworthy” were commissioned to carve a gilded figurehead of the Queen for the bows of the vessel “OUR QUEEN” launched from the Roydens yard in the City and at the time described as resplendent in all its majesty. Both figureheads of the “MONARCH” and “OUR QUEEN” would perhaps only differ in the quality of the carving and, the image of Victoria limited by the official prints, sanctioned by the palace and published at the time, and as such would have been available to the individual carvers for reference.queen_vic2
It is reputed that during her long reign Victoria launched several Warships of the British Royal Navy, In the “Mitchell’s Steam-Shipping Journal” for the 18th November 1859, an interesting report is made on the Launch of Her Majesty’s Steamer “VICTORIA”, at Portsmouth, in the presence of 40,000 people, The Queen was accompanied by the Prince Consort, and Prince and Princess Frederick William, with other members of the Royal family, this report also mentions that the ships Figurehead was a three-quarter figure of her Majesty, 15 feet in length, It represents the Queen in her robes of State, the right hand holding the sceptre, surmounted by the dove, and the left the orb, executed by the Messrs, Hellier of Cosham and Southampton, this would have been one of many such events during the Queens long reign. Interestingly mention is made of just the one merchant vessel the barque “BUKINGHAM”. As one would imagine she carried at her bow a beautifully carved imagine of the Queen, like a good many other merchant vessels of the time she had and interesting and eventful working life, with a variety of both British, German and even American owners during the course of her long trading career, Fortunately with these changes of ownership and diverse names , the only constant factor to prove her original name and country of origin would be the image of the young British Queen looking out over the bow, that would be the case until one fateful day in 1922 while under the name “MUSCOOTA” she was in collision with the steamer “YARRA” off the Bass Straits in Australia, during the incident Victoria crashed into the galley of the steamer almost pinning the ships cook to the bulkhead, and causing considerable damage. After some hasty manoeuvring the two vessels separated unfortunately Victoria remained steadfastly onboard the “YARRA”, as the “MUSCOOTA” drifted back on her original course leaving poor Victoria behind to the consternation of the “YARRA” crew. During the subsequent High Court case following the accident, the owners of the “MUSCOOTA” were awarded just over £5,000 in damages from the steamers owners of this £150 was awarded in recognition for the loss of the figurehead,( and one would imagine it’s subsequent replacement ) this indicates quite a substantial sum for the time, on what after all had been little more than a decorative feature, it’s loss had not affected the stability or running of the vessel, only it’s aesthetic appearance had been damaged.

queen_vic3Unfortunately for Victoria she was not returned to her original owners the “MUSCOOTA” instead she was taken on land and exhibited almost like a trophy in a local Melbourne garden, only to be hacked to pieces over the following years by over enthusiastic souvenir hunters until she was found to be beyond repairer and totally lost, a sad fate for such an historic and beautiful figurehead. All that we have left are a number of old black and white photographs taken during her years at sea, and in that Melbourne garden.
How many other Figureheads were carved to represent Victoria is difficult to determine, however it must number hundreds, fortunately several like the Figurehead in Aberystwyth have survived, and can be seen in public collections all over the World, from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, the United States of America, and Australia. Several are fortunate in that they come from identified vessels others like our own Victoria have not been so lucky and are still looking for identification, at some time in the future.

By the early 1990’s the condition of the carving in Aberystwyth and the small iron bracket beneath the figurehead, carrying as it did the full weight of the carving, was beginning to cause the owners of “Victoria House”, and the local Civic Society some concern, the bracket and support had become extremely corroded, after years of exposure to the relatively high salt environment of the local mist, coming in from the Irish Sea. Together with vehicle pollution from the street below, and taking into account the fact that “Victoria House” had by now been designated grade two listed in the local conservation area. After much deliberation it was decided to take her down from the building for a full conservation and restoration programme. This would be the first time in well over 100 years that Victoria would be removed and brought down to ground level. On close inspection it was found that over the past 50 years or more she had been heavily overprinted with what on initial inspection looked very much like a black tar preservative material, and had been liberally applied with several applications, obscuring much if not all the original and intricate detail. This had built up to approximately 10 to 15mm over the entire figurehead, at the same time acting as a preservative it had almost mummified Victoria with a black shroud, making her look quite hideous, it would be an interesting journey of discovery to see what had been hidden beneath her cloak of black Tar.

Removing Victoria from this think layer of tar would prove to be an extremely arduous and time consuming project and would in all take up to at least a year and a half of the project, every inch of the think Tar had to be carefully and painstakingly chipped away with the aid of a small chisel before more traditional methods of paint removal could be used, such as a small blow torch and heat gun taking care not to over heat the wood and cause unnecessary damage to the fabric and then finally Nitromos was used to strip away the final layers of paint and original undercoats. When this was all removed it was again possible to see and study the beautiful artistry of this unknown carver, whose skill had made the wood almost appear to come to life. The final layers of old paint were then removed and small samples were sent to the conservation department of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for analysis it was found that there were well over 30 layers.

Ranging in colour from off-white to a very dark blue, with many combinations in between. At one point halfway through the life of this figurehead she was apparently painted an overall black, it is interesting to conjecture that this could quite well have been done around the turn of the century and the time of the old Queens death and the universal mourning that took place all over the Empire, when monuments of the Queen would have been draped in black material. An interesting superposition, but one without any real evidence. At this point in the project all the hitherto hidden damage to the original carving was revealed, together with the fact that over the years quite a lot of the original detail had been lost for ever, at certain points in the carvings long history, it was quite remarkable to stand face to face with the Young Victoria and see her very much as the original carver had envisaged her over 150 year or more before, with her beautiful and quite distinctive features, the fine shape of her nose and delicate mouth, the hair carved in the style that would become almost a trademark for the young Queen, and like others to follow in our own age and the late Princess of Wales, would be copied by the society of the day.

queen_vic4A true icon of the Nineteenth century,
Now that Victoria was exposed to the elements for the first time since the day she left the carvers workshop she had to be fully treated with a number of preservative fluids injected in to the body of the carving over a long period of time, using capillary action, she was then left to stand and rest for several months, at the same time being constantly monitored to help determine any new areas of shrinkage that may have taken place, and to rectify small splits in the body. This cosmetic repairer was undertaken with epoxy wood fillers, at the same time it was possible to identify and recarve new elements of lost detail, from areas largely around the top of the crown and the top of the sceptre. Both areas of damage looked to be quite old with evidence of weathering and were quite probably done during her life at sea, bringing her back to as near her original condition as possible. With the Figurehead now stripped down to bare wood, and thoroughly cleaned using distilled water to remove all traces of paint stripper, attention was given to the start of her re-painting, with the help of paint samples taken from various areas at the beginning of the project, it was feasible to predict with a certain amount of confidence the original paint scheme used when she was first carved, and removed from the workshop of the ship carver before being fixed on the bow of the vessel. Several layers of exterior grade primers were used, then equal numbers of undercoats and in-between each coat the carving was lightly sanded down with a number of different grades of sandpaper, the finishing coats of high gloss enamel paint to help protect the carving when she was returned back in position on Victoria House and finally to set off the Royal Crown and other elements of the Regalia 5 books (with 24 sheets per book) of the best grade gold leaf was used. Fortunately early in the restoration project evidence was found to show that originally gold leaf had been used on both the orb sceptre, and crown justifying this additional expenditure. By the end of September 1998 the figurehead of Queen Victoria was looking as good as she was on the day the vessel was launched, now back to her original colour scheme comprising of an overall white with Burgundy and dark Blue accessories to the gown, with gold Crown and Regalia, she looked magnificent, ready for life back on Victoria House, looking out over Aberystwyth, after a long absence of almost five years. Originally on her return to Aberystwyth she was taken in to the care of the local Ceredigion museum a former Edwardian theatre, with the stage and balconies still preserved. She was taken indoors and placed on the stage enabling the local town’s people the opportunity for the first time to study the fine detail of this remarkable carving, until now lost for generations under the black cloak of tar she had worn for the past 60 or more years. After work on the fabric of Victoria House was finished and the installation of a new purpose made bracket and support it was the intention of the figureheads owners and the local Civic Society that Victoria be returned to her old home without too much fuss or attention, this was intended to be a relatively low key event however this was not to be the case, in November an attempt was made to place her back in her original position, to test the position and suitability of the new bracket, during the lifting process, with one rope around the neck of the carving and another round her body to help and stabilize her, there was a loud crack that would reverberate around the United Kingdom during the next few days, in both National and local Press, when the head of Victoria was ripped from her body and fell 15 feet onto the bonnet of a car before finally landing in the road, like a scene from the French revolution with horrified members of the local Towns people and Civic Society standing speechless. Victoria was hastily removed to the workshops of the Universities Maintenance Department for immediate repair, it was quite fortunate in that as with many other merchant figureheads carved in the nineteenth century, the carvers of the time had anticipated such damage and had made adequate provision for such an eventuality, in that should the head or even other parts of the carving be damaged at sea as was quite common, it would be a relatively easy and cost effective task to graft into a slit or stock a replacement, in an attempt to cut down on the time and cost of such damage, the head and neck had been originally carved as a separate element and had been detached from the body and as such it would now prove a relatively simple task to replace, after repair and a re-paint she was successfully and safely hoisted into position in December of 1998 to the great relief of all concerned. Today Victoria once more looks down over the town of Aberystwyth from her perch on the building named after her, a worthy landmark and a tribute to the unknown carver who made her and to the unknown ship she once adorned. It is still possible at some time in the future that her true identify will be discovered. And we will be able to at least give her back the dignity of a name and history, each year investigations keep on Turing up new information on the location of Victoria Figureheads all over the World, I am sure that one day, the beautiful lady of “Victoria House” will be given back her true identity.