Figurehead

Figurehead

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A figurehead is a carved wooden decoration found at the prow
Prow
thumb|right|295pxThe prow is the forward most part of a ship's bow that cuts through the water. The prow is the part of the bow above the waterline. The terms prow and bow are often used interchangeably to describe the most forward part of a ship and its surrounding parts...

 of ship
Ship
Since the end of the age of sail a ship has been any large buoyant marine vessel. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on size and cargo or passenger capacity. Ships are used on lakes, seas, and rivers for a variety of activities, such as the transport of people or goods, fishing,...

s largely made between the 16th and 19th century.

History



Although earlier ships had often had some form of bow ornamentation (e.g. the Viking ship
Viking ship
Viking ships were vessels used during the Viking Age in Northern Europe. Scandinavian tradition of shipbuilding during the Viking Age was characterized by slender and flexible boats, with symmetrical ends with true keel. They were clinker built, which is the overlapping of planks riveted together...

s of ca. A.D. 800-1100), the general practice was introduced with the galleon
Galleon
A galleon was a large, multi-decked sailing ship used primarily by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries. Whether used for war or commerce, they were generally armed with the demi-culverin type of cannon.-Etymology:...

s of the 16th century, as the figurehead as such could not come to be until ships had an actual head structure on which to place it. The menacing appearance of toothy and bug-eyed figureheads on Viking ships also had the protective function of warding off evil spirits.

As with the stern ornamentation, the purpose of the figurehead was often to indicate the name of the ship in a non-literate society (albeit in a sometimes very convoluted manner); and always, in the case of naval ships, to demonstrate the wealth and might of the owner. At the height of the Baroque
Baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 period, some ships of the line boasted gigantic figureheads, weighing several tons and sometimes twinned on both sides of the bowsprit.

A large figurehead, being carved from massive wood and perched on the very foremost tip of the hull, adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship. This, and cost considerations, led to figureheads being made dramatically smaller during the 18th century, and in some cases they were abolished altogether around 1800. After the Napoleonic wars
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

 they made something of a comeback, but were then often in the form of a small waist-up bust rather than the oversized full figures previously used. The clipper
Clipper
A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century that had three or more masts and a square rig. They were generally narrow for their length, could carry limited bulk freight, small by later 19th century standards, and had a large total sail area...

 ships of the 1850s and 1860s customarily had full figureheads, but these were relatively small and light.

Figureheads as such died out with the sailing ship. In addition the vogue for ram bows
Naval ram
A naval ram was a weapon carried by varied types of ships, dating back to antiquity. The weapon consisted of an underwater prolongation of the bow of the ship to form an armoured beak, usually between six and twelve feet in length...

 meant that there was no obvious place to mount one on battleships. An exception was HMS Rodney
HMS Rodney (1884)
HMS Rodney was a battleship of the Victorian Royal Navy, a member of the Admiral class of warships designed by Nathaniel Barnaby.She was a development of the design of Collingwood, but carried 13.5 inch calibre main armament as against 12 inch in the earlier ship...

 which was the last British battleship to carry a figurehead. Smaller ships of the royal navy continued to carry them. The last example may well have been the sloop HMS Cadmus launched in 1903. Early steamships did sometimes have gilt scroll-work and coats-of-arms at their bows. This practice lasted up until about World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. The 1910 German liner SS Imperator
SS Imperator
SS Imperator was an ocean liner built for the Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft launched in 1912. She was the first of a trio of successively larger Hamburg America ships that included and built by the line for transatlantic passenger service...

 originally sported a large bronze figurehead of an eagle (the Imperial German symbol) standing on a globe. The few extra feet of length added by the figurehead made the Imperator the longest ship in the world at the time of her launch.

It is still common practise for warships to carry ships' badges, large plaques mounted on the superstructure with a unique design relating to the ship's name or role. For example Type 42 Destroyer
Type 42 destroyer
The Type 42 or Sheffield class, are guided missile destroyers used by the British Royal Navy and the Argentine Navy. The first ship of the class was ordered in 1968 and launched in 1971, and today three ships remain active in the Royal Navy and one in the Argentinian Navy...

s of the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

, which are named after British cities, carry badges depicting the coat of arms
Coat of arms
A coat of arms is a unique heraldic design on a shield or escutcheon or on a surcoat or tabard used to cover and protect armour and to identify the wearer. Thus the term is often stated as "coat-armour", because it was anciently displayed on the front of a coat of cloth...

of their namesake.

On smaller vessels, the billethead might be substituted. This was a smaller, nonfigural carving, most often a curl of foliage.

In Germany, Belgium, and Holland, it was once believed that spirits/faeries called Kaboutermannekes (water fairies) dwelt in the figureheads. The spirit guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds. If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors' souls to the Land of the Dead. To sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned the sailor's soul to haunt the sea forever, so Dutch sailors believed. A similar belief was found in early Scandinavia/Vikings.

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