Fabulous naval figureheads set to return to The Box


The figurehead from HMS Sybille

A flotilla of fabulous figureheads will return to Plymouth next week to be displayed in The Box, after being restored in a hugely ambitious conservation project.

The 14 Royal Navy figureheads, weighing more than 20 tonnes, will start arriving on Monday 21 October and will take two weeks to be delivered and installed in their new home.

The figureheads were carved in the 1800s and are on loan to The Box from the National Museums of the Royal Navy. They have been saved from decay by three specialist conservation teams based in London, Devon and Cornwall. Over the last two years the teams have painstakingly analysed, repaired and repainted them – removing years of water damage and returning them to their former glory.

Once built to adorn the bows of naval warships, these icons of maritime history will be suspended in a huge sweep in The Box’s main entrance space next Spring.

There will be  13 figureheads hanging from the ceiling, secured with just three cables to create the effect of a fleet of carvings floating in space. The 14th and largest figurehead will stand on the floor with a huge display of nearly 300 ship’s badges behind it.

Council Leader Tudor Evans 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.”

King Billy

The largest figurehead is HMS Royal William or ‘King Billy’ – a 13ft tall, two-tonne standing figure of William IV carved in 1833. Others include an ancient Greek-inspired figurehead from HMS Sybille, which played served in the Second China War (1856-1860) and the figurehead from HMS Centaur which fought pirates off the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855.

Due to the scale of the figureheads, conservators pioneered a new technique using sonic tomography scanning – a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees.

The technique enabled the teams to accurately assess the amount of deterioration inside each figurehead. This, along with an analysis of the surface paint layers, enabled them to develop the most appropriate treatment methods.

This approach not only saved the original carved surfaces and the figureheads themselves, it’s also uncovered hidden craftsmanship. After securing the structural integrity and carrying out repair and restoration work, each figurehead was been repainted.

Councillor Evans addded: “Throughout the ages Plymouth has been shaped by its maritime location and military connections and the figureheads will give visitors to The Box a great insight into both of these. They’ll also provide real ‘wow’ factor for people when they step through the doors due to their scale and wonderful heritage-inspired colours. I can’t wait to see them on display.”

Follow the progress of the delivery and install on The Box’s Facebook and Twitter channels using @theboxplymouth. To find out more about the figureheads visit  www.theboxplymouth.com/figureheads