The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth

For the past two years  together with local Southsea based artist Kevin Dean they have been working on a project to redress this situation and as such  should be congratulated on this new and important publication from the History Press, “The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth” is an invaluable and must have addition to the library of any true Figurehead enthusiasts, or for that matter any one interested in the rich Naval heritage of the United Kingdom,  published in association with the National Museum of the Royal Navy  in Portsmouth, David guides us through this museums important collection of surviving figureheads and other related Maritime carvings, the surviving figureheads are published in chronological  order, from the brooding head only of HMS WARRIOR built in 1781 at Portsmouth  a witness to both the Battles of the Saints in 1782 and then Copenhagen in 1801 before ultimately been  taken to pieces in 1857, of it’s vast Figurehead only the head and neck were saved for posterity, To the charming female figurehead from HMS ESPIEGLE a sloop built in 1900 at the Royal Dockyard in Sheerness Kent, one of the last traditional Figureheads to be carved and fitted for a vessel of the Royal Navy, a fitting swansong for a tradition of carvings on the bow of British Warships going back to the early sixteenth century to it’s heydays during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.


Illustrated by Kevin Dean FIGUREHEAD from HMS MALACCA of 1853

“The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth” is more that a catalogue of an important collection, the first three chapters of this book follow, first the Development of the history of the Figurehead in the Royal Navy from the fleet of Henry VII and the “Mary Rose” to it’s demise towards the end of the nineteenth century, it then  moves on to fascinating subject of Warship Ship Names and the task of the figurehead carver, before moving to the history of the Portsmouth Collection with it’s formation as the original Dockyard Museum during the first quarter of the twentieth century, and its ultimate development into the Museum and historic vessel complex we see in the historic Dockyard today, with figureheads still on the bow of two historic vessels, HMS VICTORY and HMS WARRIOR, bows display figureheads from two quite different ages of the tradition.
In this book 36 of the Museums most important figureheads are described in great detail over a two page spread, the first page gives details on the vessels history from the date it was launched and yard through it’s service career within the Royal Navy and battle honours won  to its ultimate fate at the hands of the ship breakers, this information is complimented with additional material on the history of the Figurehead itself, with wherever possible the name of the carver or carvers workshop, in several cases through his painstaking research in both local and national archives David  has been able to find the original carvers designs and sketches from Admiralty material held in the National Archives in Kew, it’s interesting to see a number of significant variations from the carvers original ideas for the Figurehead to the finished carving we see on display in the museums galleries today, complimenting this wealth of information on the right hand page are Kevin Deans evocative watercolour paintings, produced over many hours in the Museums main gallery, showing as they do the diversity in both subject and style of carving, from the delicate and feminine  ROYAL ADELAIDE a yacht of 1833 and one of the smallest Figureheads in the collection, to the vast bust figurehead of HMS ASIA built in Bombay India in 1824, with it’s dark skin and beautiful almond eye’s, it’s quite possible that he was carved in India at the time Asia was being built, removed from the vessel in 1908 he has been part of the Portsmouth collection since that time.

This book is a celebration of the surviving Figureheads at Portsmouth, representing as it does one of the four major collections in the United Kingdom, the others being the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich London, The Chatham Historic Dockyard collection in Kent, and the Devonport Dockyard collection in Plymouth, over the past 50 years as Naval establishments and Dockyards such as Sheerness in Kent have closed down individual Figureheads have been moved and transferred from one collection to the other, the final appendices tells the story of Figureheads formerly in the Dockyard at Portsmouth, that have been moved on to new locations or lost, such as HMS HIBERNIA  of 1804, a vast Irish-Celtic god carrying a harp,  used as the principal receiving ship in Malta from 1855, when she was broken up in the early 1900’s the Figurehead  was removed andFIGUREHEAD of the BLACK EAGLE of 1842 remained on the island until 1972, with the British withdrawal from the Island he was brought back to the United Kingdom, standing outside the Museum  until the early 1990’s when he was returned to Malta to be become a focal piece of the newly formed Malta Maritime Museum. Sadly Portsmouth has in the recent past lost at least three major carvings, standing at 16 feet HMS Royal Albert of 1854 was given to the Museum in 1913, too big to fit inside any of the available buildings, this vast Figurehead showing the Prince Consort stood for many years near the Admiral Superintendents Officer in the Dockyard, and today survives only in historic back and white photographs, by the end of the second World War, he had already disappeared, succumbing to the elements and rot, likewise the Figureheads of HMS ROYAL FREDERICK of 1848 and HMS ROYAL SOVEREIGN of  1857, for many years  both carvings stood in the entrance of the original Dockyard Museum,  moved to HMS ST VINCENT in Gosport by 1957 both Figureheads had been lost.

FIGUREHEAD of HMS ARIADNE of 1859“The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth” is a fascinating look at a wonderful and interesting part of our rich naval heritage, it would be encouraging to hear that other publications are in hand on the other important Naval collections at Greenwich, Chatham an Plymouth, each one with it’s own unique catalogue of important figureheads with a story to be told. “The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth” is a great leap in the right direction, and will I hope encourage others to study and understand the importance of these wonderful carving, not only as works of art, but  as surviving icons of an age of power and confidence.

“The Warship Figureheads of Portsmouth”
By David Pulvertaft
Illustrated by Kevin Dean
Is published by the History Press,
ISBN 978 0 7524 5076 6
Price: £25.00
And can be bought from any good bookshop or direct from the History Press.
You can buy this book here