Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

      The art of glorious (or frightening) "hood ornaments" for ships

      The elaborate decorative wooden carvings known as figureheads were found
      on the prow of ships built between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
      Many depicted human females or animals, but other designs could be found
      as well. There had been ornamentation on boats and ships in earlier eras,
      in Egypt for example, plus in other cultures of the ancient world.

      (top: the figurehead of the Cutty Sark, 1869; photo by
        Alexey Suloev, see

      This ship’s figurehead was originally dated to the Viking period, but is
      now thought to be from between 350 and 650 AD, when the Germanic peoples
      were expanding in Europe during the breakup of the Western Roman Empire
      (left image below):

      (images via 1,

      A few centuries later, Viking ships often displayed fearsome dragon’s
      heads on their voyages between around 800 and 1000 AD (middle and right
      images above).

      (images via)

      Dutch ships' figureheads: left & middle: "Sjaelland" line ship, 1787; on
      the right is "Phoenix" from 1811:

      (images via)

      However, the general practice of using a figurehead arrived with the
      development of the ocean going galleons of the 1500’s. Similar to the
      manner in which pub signs (which we examined in a
      previous articles
      here on Dark Roasted Blend) were employed to advertise premises when the
      majority of the population couldn’t read, ship figureheads were often used
      to indicate the name of a ship in a much less literate society. They also
      could serve to display the wealth and social status of the ship’s owner or
      the might and power of the country, in the case of military vessels.
      Various Dutch and Russian figureheads from 1739-1741:

      (images via)

      Not just an ornament - a guide to the afterlife!

      Figureheads also served as a kind of good luck charm for the ship’s crew.
      In Germany, Belgium and Holland, it was believed that the ship’s
      figureheads contained spirits called Kaboutermannekes. These
      spirits protected the ship and crew from fierce storms, treacherous winds,
      uncharted rocks, illness or disease, and in the event the ship sank, the
      spirits would guide the sailors souls to the afterlife. If sailors lost
      their lives at sea without such protection, it was believed their souls
      would haunt the sea for all eternity.


      Figureheads became somewhat popular again following the Napoleonic Wars,
      after having almost disappeared entirely by 1800, but were smaller that
      the full figure versions that had been popular in previous centuries.
      Here’s the bow of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, from the early
      nineteenth century (left).

      (images via 1,

      The British frigate Unicorn was launched in 1824 with the striking
      decoration (shown above right). Left: Prince Henry the Navigator
      figurehead from "Sagres II", Portugal, 1937... Right: monk figurehead from
      Amerigo-Vespucci, 1931:

      (images via)

      (images credit: left
        Heather Cuthill; right

      A Tea for Two and a Rub for my Figurehead!

      The clippers, which sailed the globe’s trade routes in the mid nineteenth
      century, usually had full figureheads, but these were usually lightweight
      versions. Prior to being closed for major restoration, the tea clipper
      Cutty Sark at Greenwich, London, contained a large collection of
      ships' figureheads:

      (all images copyright
        WhipperSnapper, used by permission)

      The first steamships sometimes had decorations on their bows, but
      figureheads mostly died out with the demise of the sailing ship.


      The Royal Navy ship HMS Rodney, launched in 1884, was the last
      British battleship to have a figurehead, although some smaller British
      vessels continued to use them until the early years of the twentieth
      century. Here’s the figurehead of HMS Warrior from the same era
      (left image):

      (images via

      The German ocean liner Imperator, launched in 1912, used a large
      bronze eagle as a figurehead (see above image on the right). The extra
      feet of length it provided made Imperator the longest ship in the
      world at the time, beating the British ship Olympic, a sister
      vessel of the Titanic. Figureheads usually depicted human figures,
      but here we have a lion (below left)... and even King Neptune himself
      (middle image), whose face seems entirely similar to the figurehead of
      HMS Ajax, which was built in 1809 and featured in many engagements
      during the lengthy conflict with Napoleon (below right):

      (images via

      Here’s a sight familiar to residents of, and visitors to, the Canadian
      city of Vancouver. This carving of a sea dragon, located in Stanley Park,
      is a replica of the figurehead of the Empress of Japan, which sailed back
      and forth from Canada’s west coast to Asia from the early 1890’s until

      (left image credit
        Kevin R. Boyd, right image

      And speaking of Asia, here are some examples of figureheads from Thailand,
      displayed on barges used by the royal family. This first one dates from
      the mid-sixteenth century.

      (image credit: left Guava, right
        Peter Sealy)

      Today, the examples of elaborately decorated figureheads found in museums,
      historic collections and other locations around the world remain a
      fascinating reminder of a bygone age. We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at
      figureheads here at Dark Roasted Blend.


      Simon Rose is the
        author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including
        The Alchemist's Portrait,
        The Sorcerer's Letterbox,
        The Clone Conspiracy,
        The Emerald Curse,
        The Heretic's Tomb
        The Doomsday Mask.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is another interesting figurehead of Thailand's barge.

Blogger Italian Job said...

Roman Polanski's "Pirates" ship is moored in Genoa's harbour, Italy: http://www.modellismo.net/forum/storia-e-personaggi-navali/71039-galeone-pirata-di-genova.html

Anonymous flyingsorcerer said...

First pic is not the "Cutty Sark"; the bare-breasted lady reaching out to grab Tam o'Shanter's horse's tail (from the poem by Robert Burns), about a third of the way down the page, is the actual "Cutty Sark" figurehead. The ship, last survivor of the old tea clippers is permanently drydocked at Greenwich, England. She was almost destroyed by a fire in 2007, but has been restored.


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