Dover Book

Text Box with description of Book

    I bought this book to assist me in coloring Old Ship Figureheads a while back, and finally pulled them both out to study. I had no idea how fascinating would be this subject! Goodness me! It became even more interesting when I began looking these figureheads up online, and there is a wealth of them. They are in museums and private collections, and some have been restored to pristine condition, such as the eagle which you may see on the coloring book page above. A lot of them—most of them really, are downright creepy, and when you see them on the ship, it's like they're flying through the air. Lots of bare boobies, too, I have discovered, including the coloring book. Not in this book, however. Though it does have a quite a number of plates in the back, and lots of illustrations throughout the entire book, they are in black and white and nowhere near as interesting as the ones you can see online. And despite the title, the figureheads are only a small segment of the information contained in this book. It is more on ships' architectural styles and their evolution through the ages, with the emphasis on decoration. It is amazing how many of these ships still exists in models. They are truly works of art.
    The book begins with an introductory section that covers general history and a bit about terminology, which is always a difficult thing for me when reading the many novels that I do which take place on the sea. Laughton then speaks of specific time periods, and the ups and downs of ship ornamentation, including the escalated fees charged by the artists. I found his description of Baroque "art with knobs on," amusing, and there was certainly an abundance of knobs on these ships. So much, that they became more ornamental than useful, in fact they were weighted down with their carvings—"art with knobs on with a vengeance"—Laughton says. By the nineteenth century, however, ship ornamentation was reduced to mostly just the figurehead. After that, structure and paintwork more defined the beauty of a ship.
    He also discusses the type of wood used for the carvings, and though heavy oak withstood the test of time, sometimes even outliving the ship, elm was more often used, and it tended to rot quite quickly.
    Queen Elizabeth spared no cost for her royal ships. In 1598, the carvings for the White Bear cost £377, and the cost continued to rise after her death. By 1637, the carvings for Sovereign of the Seas (see images below), cost a whopping £6.691, and no wonder, by the looks of it! However, when the Anglo-Dutch Wars began, (1652), the cost of carvings dropped to the hundreds, not thousands of pounds. In 1703, the Navy Board issued strict guidelines and prices for carvings and ornaments on ships, according to their rating. For instance, the carvings on the 60-gun fourth rate Superb only cost £25.
    Chapter Four deals with the ships' structure: sterns, bows, and lots of other parts that I had to keep looking up and consulting the illustrations, but by the time I finished the chapter, I "got it," and understood what Laughton was saying. This chapter mostly points out how these structural parts evolved over the years.
    Chapter Five is about figureheads themselves. The very earliest seafarers decorated their vessels with religious symbols and animals, but there was deeper meaning for what they chose, rather than just ornamental. "The ship, having to find her way, needed eyes," Laughton says, and those could be the eyes of a dragon, a snake, unicorn or horse, or even painting eyes on either side of the bow.
    The lion seemed to be the figure of choice for many years. Laughton says, "After the Restoration there were very few ships which had a figure other than a lion." Later, equestrian figures showed up, such as St. George slaying the dragon. The cupids made their way into the scene, and by the 1700s, the figurehead ornaments became so busy that one was at a loss to even make out what the figures were, or what was their symbolic meaning. In 1727, the order of 1703 was relaxed, and lighter, non-lion figures especially began to show up on smaller craft and sloops. Laughton points out that these vessels often had fat and grotesque figures.
    By 1796, the money allotted to figureheads was very small, and therefore, not too much of interest was created. In the early 1800s, however, shipwrights began to be trained in drawing at the R.N. College in Portsmouth. But still, the art declined for cost-cutting reasons. Depending on the size of the ship, its figurehead may have been a mere bust.
    The French, it seems did not follow the trends of the other countries much, and their figureheads remained single and more simple, "both graceful and effective."
    Of course very few of these figureheads still survive, although some have been restored, and models have also been made, and models of the ships also survive. The coloring book has been quite challenging in that respect because the description given in the book, at least as far as colors, does not match what I am finding online. I am not sure how accurate either is compared to the original.
    I want to point out very clearly that I am quite stupid concerning parts of a ship. Chapter Six covers The Stern, and I had to look that up to find that it is the back end of the ship as opposed to the head. Here Laughton discusses the different stern shapes and ornaments, but it was the section on galleries that I found extremely challenging.
    I realize that none of this would be complicated to someone who knows a bit about the subject, but me—well, there are lots and lots of footnotes which refer to the diagrams, illustrations and photos that are scattered throughout the book, plus the section of 55 plates in the back, and I constantly flipped back and forth from the text to the pictures, being determined to learn the material presented. After struggling for a couple days, I finally realized that the galleries ran outside the ship, as in above the water. DUH. Once I got that straight, the rest of the chapter, and the next chapter made much more sense. In fact, by studying the pictures, it all began to make sense and become much easier to understand. Different styles of stern lanterns are also described in this chapter.
    I am glad I got the gallery thing all figured out in my mind, because the following chapter is all on galleries and all their different shapes, styles and ornamentation. As I became more familiar with the subject it in turn became more fascinating. One other point I want to make as I think of it is that on a number of occasions throughout the book, the footnotes are incorrect, for instance, one may be labeled "Page" when "Plate" is meant, so sometimes a bit more searching for the correct picture is required.
    The next chapter deals with the Broadside, which I interpreted as everything between the front and the back. I also found most of this material less confusing, as these terms were more obvious, such as rails, decks and ports.
    Since most of the ships discussed here are war-ships, guns were an essential element. Most of the ships are partially identified by the number of guns they held. There is a considerable section on gun ports and it is amazing that even they were carved and decorated. Wreaths surrounding each port was the fashion for quite a while, but sometimes lion heads were carved on the inside of the lids. 1703 was a year with which I became familiar throughout the book, because it was the year that drastic cost-cutting measures were issued in England concerning the decorations and ornamentations on ships, and much of this ostentatiousness ended then.
    Though Laughton does not elaborate upon inboard decoration a great deal, the chapter on Inboard Works discusses mostly belfries, with lots of interesting illustrations.
    The final chapter, before the index and plates, is about Painting and Gilding. This chapter strays perhaps a bit more than the others from English, French and Dutch ships, mentioning ancient Roman and Viking vessels. Laughton admits that there is not as much information preserved about painting, except a few indications of colors used, and the information that does survive is in spurts. Red was important for Henry IV, and a description of his elaborately painting barges is presented. There is also a manuscript of 1540 that contains colored illustrations of royal ships from the period. Some of the records available are in the form of financial statements, according to what was paid for certain decorative work, including painting and gilding. Another point mentioned by Laughton is that, out on the seas, especially during wartimes, the paint probably wore off very quickly. He also differentiates between actual gilding and much cheaper gold-colored paint. In addition, there is evidence sometimes of fraud, where lower quality paint was used rather than the one specified.
    As mentioned above, I bought this book to aid me in coloring the book on ship figureheads. I can't say that it really helped with that specifically, but I learned a great deal more than I ever imagined. This book is not an easy read unless you are familiar with the subject and all the terminology. However, I made a point to extract as much knowledge as possible in one reading, and in that I succeeded greatly.
     Though the ships discussed mostly preceded the nineteenth century, the information I gained will still be most helpful in all the Victorian novels I read. In my opinion, the "Golden Age of Literature" comes from England during the 1800s and early twentieth century. Since England is such a seafaring nation, it is no wonder that a vast portion of literature produced by English authors takes place on the sea. I have always felt at a loss when situations on vessels are described, because I am unable to picture them in my mind, being so far removed from sea-life. That is all different now, and I can look back and make much more sense of the numerous novels I have read.
    One aspect of ships that is not covered at all in this book concerns the sails, of which I am also totally ignorant. For that, I suppose I will need to read a different book.
    This book is extremely well researched, organized, and illustrated. If you are interested in this subject, I highly recommend it.
    I have included some images below. The figureheads are not ones discussed here, but do appear in the coloring book linked above, where you may find more figureheads to view. I included these here just 'cause I think they’re cool.

Cutty Sark
Eurydice, shown at the Portsmouth Naval Museum
Figurehead for the Edinburgh


Cutty Sark

H.M.S. Sovereign of the Seas, Stern


Of all the ships discussed in the book, the H.M.S. Sovereign of the Seas of the English Royal Navy was probably the most frequently mentioned. I had a bookmark for its plate in the back of the book, I went there so often! Above, see the ornately carved stern. Below is a model from the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey. Last is an image of the beakhead bulkhead with its elaborate carvings. And this was a warship! It served from 1638 to 1697, when it burned to the waterline. Thankfully the models survived.

H.M.S. Sovereign of the Seas, Beakhead Bulkhead

H.M.S. Sovereign of the Seas, Model

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