“And at the bows an image stood by a cunning artist carved in wood”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Like a guardian angel, the figurehead was for centuries the chaperone that guided and protected the ship on her way over the deep oceans to distant lands. Once a dying art, Andy Peters is one such man who carves these figures to meet the demand from the recent revival in traditional sailing ships.
There was a time when every major port would have had a “Ships Carver” to provide the decorative work that up to the end of the 1600’s constituted a considerable proportion of a ships building costs. The styles and motives closely followed decorative fashions ashore and created employment for some very prominent sculptors such as, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), a Dutch born sculptor, wood carver and master carver to Charles ll.
The figurehead embodied the spirit of a ship and was originally thought to be related to the need for a ship to see its way safely through the water, guiding her over the waves and defending her against the monsters of the deep. Up to the end of the nineteenth century almost every prow had a carved figure looking down at the waves. Images such as Lions, Eagles, Goddesses and even Dragons and Mermaids whose traditional associations with disaster, doesn’t seem to have precluded their occasional use. A ship without a figurehead was like a ship without a sail, it was with this in mind that I went to meet “Ships Carver” Andy Peters.
Andy’s workshop is on the Waterperry Estate in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside, where I turned up to meet him one fine June morning. Although some of his larger projects require him to work on site with the vessel or shipyard, I was surprised to find that he had chosen a landlocked site for his workshop and my comments reminded him of a line from an old sea shanty….
“Never cast your anchor less than 90 miles from shore,
else there’ll always be temptation to be off to sea once more”
…then he would never get any work done ! But he reassured me that this was his base close to home where he produced the maquette’s for the final sculptures and various other renovations. After a glance at the work in hand it was easy to see why he had been commissioned to work on such grand projects like the magnificent Gotheborg, a replica of the Swedish East Indiaman from 1738. This particular commission led to a period of six years as Ships Carver to the Swedish East India Company.
The Goteborg project set out to reconstruct as authentic a replica that modern day safety requirements will allow for a ship to sail unaided around the world. After thoroughly researching the French Baroque style as befitted a Swedish ship of the period, Andy designed and carved the decorations for the stern, quarter galleries and figurehead. He now has a permanent base near her home port in Sweden.
Drawn to the sea from an early age Andy created carvings for his own boat which attracted a lot of interest. This led to commissions which inspired him to set up Maritima Woodcarving, to reinstate the lost art and services of a “Ships Carver”
Whether it’s a restoration project or a new figurehead for a tall ship, Andy approaches every job with meticulous detail. Researching the identity of the original carver by working closely with private collectors, museums and his own significant database.
He gathers together old photographs studying the detail thus enabling him to recreate an authentic copy, down to curls in the hair or folds in the drapery. Other parts are done by hand or eye unless there’s enough of the original to take measurements from, if not it can be scaled up from photographs.
Deciding on the timber and sourcing it is also critical. Taking funding into account, consideration must also be given to the final location of the work whether it will rest in a museum or on the prow of a ship. Authenticity is also an issue with 17th century carvings usually in Oak but from the 18th century onwards the Royal Navy commissioned work in Pine to reduce costs. Having acquired the wood it is then laminated to
size before carving. this was originally achieved using Linseed oil putty which eventually dried up allowing the timbers to part and the weather into the wood. Today Andy uses modern glues and short lengths of quality timber to achieve a good bond between sections.
Carving for a ship would involve starting at the hull end where a mould would be taken in order to achieve a good join between the prow and the figurehead. Any gaps could be fatal if exposed to the pressure of the waves when sailing, as in the case of the “Gunilla” who lost one of her trail-boards in her first season due to a gap between the trail-board and hull. The perspective of the figurehead when mounted on the prow is also very important, it must blend with the lines of the ship, the wrong eye direction could ruin the overall picture. Consideration is also given to the sailing of the ship, there would be nothing worse than finding your ropes or anchor warp being fouled.
The final touches are applied with paint using traditional artist oils and if it’s a renovation project samples are taken from remnants of the old paint, scanned and then replicated, a typical project taking three to four months from start to finish. Andy is currently renovating the figurehead from HMS Chesapeake, a 4th rate steam frigate built at Chatham in 1855, to replace the earlier USS Chesapeake which was captured from the Americans at Boston Bay in 1813. The original was built in the Gosport Navy yard, Norfolk VA in 1800, one of the six frigates ordered by Congress to deal with the Barbary Corsairs in the Mediterranean.
“USS Chesapeake – Frigate, 36 guns, 1244 tons, keel laid Dec 10, 1798, launched Dec 2, 1799
The Chesapeake was attacked by the British Leopard off Cape Henry in 1807 which led to the duel between Commodores James Barron and Stephen Decatur and was one of the causes leading to the war of 1812. She was captured off Boston by the British frigate Shannon, on which occasion her commander, Capt James Lawrence, uttered his celebrated dying words “Don’t give up the ship” The Chesapeake was taken into the Royal Navy and in 1820 broken up at Portsmouth, England, her timbers being used to build a flour mill at Wickham”
(Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
In 1855 she was replaced by a new HMS Chesapeake and from the outside would have looked much the same as she did before. Employed as the flagship to the fleet guarding the East Indies and China seas, she survived until 1867 when she was broken up at Charlton.
Her figurehead was transferred to Sheerness Dockyard as a shore exhibit between 1890-1920. It underwent remedial restoration at Chatham in 1990, before being moved to Maritima for total renovation in 2008. The figurehead is reputed to be an image of Pocahontas, Andy’s brief was to carve a replica working from surviving photographs and incorporating any parts of the original that are still sound.