26 September 2022
By Stathis Tsolis, Conservator.
At the beginning of 2022, we introduced Conservation in Action sessions for our volunteers. Under my guidance and supervision, volunteers participated in practical conservation treatments of select museum objects from our Maritime collection.
We have recently completed the conservation of a Ship’s Figurehead that has been prominently on display on the half-landing of the grand staircase of the Maritime Museum.
The figurehead is a bust of a woman in a classical style. She has long hair falling over her shoulders, a garland in her hair and drapes pulled from her bosom. The figurehead is painted white and it is possibly from a Royal Navy Frigate.
Initially, our goal was to carefully remove the layers of dust and dirt that have been accumulated on the painted surface, repair some minor damage in the nose area and come up with a discrete display solution. I emphasise on the latter as the figurehead has been previously mounted on the wall with the use of a heavy duty steel bracket and an unsightly metal brace around the neck.
Once the figurehead was taken off the wall, we noticed a large crack running from the top of the head towards the right shoulder. Smaller cracks were also visible.
Although cracks on wooden objects are common (as the wood slowly dries up over time), this meant that we had to make sure that the objects is structurally sound and suitable for display once the museum is refurbished.
Before a conservation treatment can take place, it is essential to do research, plan the work and identify the materials and skills required for the work. I consulted books and articles and got in touch with people with knowledge in the history and conservation of figureheads. The design and manufacturing of the new bracket required the input of a structural engineer, steel fabrication companies and manufacturers of timber preservatives.
We made some interesting discoveries and learn useful facts about ships figureheads. For example, the majority of the surviving wooden figureheads are made mainly of softwood such as yellow pine or elm. The reason was both economical and practical; Softwoods such as elm and pine would have been easier to work and did not weight as much as teak oak or mahogany, important factors in 18-19C ship building. It is true that pine or elm are not as robust, nonetheless the figureheads would often outlast their ship and had better chances to survive the breaking yard as figureheads were considered to be the soul of a ship.
The conservation process included the following tasks:
- Surface cleaning
- Cosmetic repair of the nose
- Assessment of structural integrity and reinforcement
- Design and fabrication of a new mounting system
The cleaning stage involved vacuuming and application of a solution of deionised water and a detergent used in conservation. Deposits that have been accumulated over time were removed while being careful not to disturb the painted surface.
The tip of the nose has been repaired in the past with various fillers such as plaster of Paris and nails. After careful cleaning and removal of debris, the original wooden surface was consolidated with B-72 fixative. We also produced a mould of the nose using dental silicone rubber.
This allowed us to produce several plaster casts of the damaged nose. Each member of the team had the opportunity to carry out a cosmetic repair on their plaster nose cast using modelling clay. With practice, we reached the point that we were confident to carry out the repair on the original, using Milliput epoxy putty.
The design and fabrication of the mounting bracket posed specific challenges related to the larger cracks at the back of the figurehead. Careful examination of the back revealed that a large part was actually made of lime based mortar sculpted to blend with the original timber.
As the wood gradually dried up, a large split appeared where wood and mortar were joined together. It is likely that this mortar infill was made to cover a mortice (recess) carved into the wood to create a connection point for securing the figurehead on the bow of a ship.
After measuring the depth of each crack we concluded that by reinforcing them with a structural resin used to repair architectural timber, the figurehead could be displayed in its original position using a wall bracket with a support fixed directly on the back and the base of the figurehead without the need of a neck brace.
We commissioned the bracket fabrication to a local manufacturer who used CAD software to laser cut the parts out of 10mm steel plate, welded them together and applied a powder coating to protect it for corrosion. For fixings we opted for 180mm stainless steel timber screws reinforced with structural resin.
The final task included colour matching of the repaired areas. We have established earlier on that the figurehead has been painted with several layers of white. We opted not to remove these layers as we did not want to risk any loss of the friable wooden surface. Interestingly, most surviving figureheads are painted in live colours leading to a misconception that this was a common practice in the past. However researchers have recently concluded that between 1727 and 1900, both white figureheads and those painted in colour were to be seen throughout the Royal Navy fleet and that rather more were painted white than in colour.
The Figurehead is now conserved and stored until the newly refurbished Maritime Museum reopens its doors to the public where everyone will have the opportunity to admire it in its usual position on the grand staircase. Until then, we will continue conserving maritime objects and keeping you up to date with articles, social media posts, images and video footage.
- McCarthy Erica, Ship carvers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, Sculpture Journal 24.2, 2015, pp. 179-194
- Pulvertaft David, The Colour Schemes of British Warship Figureheads 1727–1900, The Mariner’s Mirror, Volume 104, 2018 - Issue 2, pp. 192-210
- Stammers Mike, Figureheads and Fancywork, A Manual of Maritime Curatorship, 2017, pp. 322-337