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Restored figureheads from 19th-century warships go on display

The 14 figureheads collectively weigh more than 20 tonnes.


Work being carried out on the newly restored ships figureheads on display at the Box museum in Plymouth (Wayne Perry/PA)

Work being carried out on the newly restored ships figureheads on display at the Box museum in Plymouth (Wayne Perry/PA)

Work being carried out on the newly restored ships figureheads on display at the Box museum in Plymouth (Wayne Perry/PA)

A collection of 19th-century wooden figureheads from naval warships has gone on display following two years of restoration.

The 14 figureheads, collectively weighing more than 20 tonnes, have been returned to their former glory after years of water damage led to rot and decay.

Two specialist conservation teams have spent more than two years working on the figureheads, which are on loan from the National Museums of the Royal Navy.

The largest is King Billy, a 13ft-tall figure of William IV carved for HMS Royal William in 1833.

A female bust carved for HMS Topaz in 1858 had wood rot throughout 90% of her structure but conservators saved her carved outer shell before replacing the rotting wood and repainting her.

On Tuesday, the figureheads were unveiled at The Box in Plymouth, where they are suspended in the ceiling of the main atrium.

Tudor Evans, leader of Plymouth City Council, said: “The figureheads are more than just wooden sculptures, they’re iconic symbols of the history of the city of Plymouth and the Royal Navy.

“They’re also fantastic representations of the craftsmanship and skill of the sculptors who made them over 200 years ago.

“Right from the start when we were developing our original concepts for The Box we wanted to have a ‘flotilla’ of figureheads suspended from the ceiling of the new entrance in a nod to Plymouth’s important maritime history and as the place where great journeys start from.”

A technique called sonic tomography scanning, which was designed for measuring decay cavities in living trees, allowed conservators to assess the internal condition of the timber of each figurehead.

In most cases, the figureheads showed such severe degradation through rot that they had to be carefully deconstructed.

Each section underwent controlled drying in purpose-built humidity chambers to minimise warping and shrinking of timber.

The conservation team tracked down a set of 1912 full-colour cigarette cards featuring the Navy’s most famous figureheads from the previous century.

They included one from HMS Calcutta, which is one of the figureheads being restored for The Box.

A palette of colours inspired by the cigarette cards was used to restore each of the figureheads when they came to be repainted.

Hans Thompson and Maxwell Malden, directors of Orbis Conservation, said: “In terms of scale and complexity, this project has been one of the most challenging that the team at Orbis Conservation have ever encountered.

“Our analysis of both the surface paint layers and the structural integrity of the figureheads allowed us to develop a treatment methodology that saved the original carved surface and the figurehead itself.

“Throughout this project we have uncovered the previously obscured craftsmanship and virtuoso carving of these formidable figures, which otherwise might have been lost to future generations.

“The fact that we have been able to save so much of the original 19th century carving to be appreciated anew by visitors to The Box has made this project especially rewarding.”

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