14 ship figureheads weighing over 20 tonnes arrive at the UK's newest museum The Box in Plymouth

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14 ship figureheads weighing over 20 tonnes arrive at the UK's newest museum The Box in Plymouth
Tudor Evans inspecting King William at The Box in Plymouth, October 2019. Photo: Wayne Perry.

PLYMOUTH.- In what is the most ambitious sculpture conservation project currently taking place in the UK, 14 monumental 19th century naval figureheads have been saved from decay for the nation.

From spring 2020, these icons of Britain’s maritime history will be on public display at The Box in Plymouth. The Box is the largest museum & art gallery space opening in the UK next year and will be the biggest arts & heritage centre in the South West of England when it opens.

Three specialist conservation teams in London, Devon and Cornwall, led by Orbis Conservation, have spent over two years painstakingly restoring the 14 wooden figureheads to their former glory, after years of water damage led to rot and decay. On loan from the National Museums of the Royal Navy, the carved figureheads, built to adorn the bows of 19th century naval warships, started making their way back to Plymouth on Monday 21st October.

Weighing over 20 tonnes collectively, the largest of the 14 wooden figureheads to be rescued is HMS Royal William or “King Billy” a 13ft tall, 2 tonne standing figure of William IV carved in 1833. One of the most badly damaged of the figureheads was HMS Topaz a three-quarter-length female bust carved in 1858, whose ship was responsible for removing two of the Easter Island statues that are now in the British Museum’s collection. Topaz had wood rot throughout 90% of her structure but conservators used extraordinary techniques including Sonic Tomography to save her carved outer shell, before carefully replacing the rotting wood and repainting her.

Other figureheads in the collection also have extraordinary histories including HMS Sybille, inspired by the ancient Greek oracle, who played an active role in the capture of Canton during the Second China War, HMS Centaur who fought pirates on the coast of West Africa and served during the Crimea War in 1855 and HMS Calliope who was stationed in Australia during the early 1850s and deployed to New Zealand in 1848 during wars with the Maori including the attack on Ruapekapeka.

Led by Plymouth City Council, the figurehead conservation project is the most significant of its kind in a generation. It not only secures the future of the Devonport figureheads, but identifies The Box as a centre of excellence and innovation for the preservation and display of maritime heritage, with one of the largest collections of figureheads in the UK. The ambitious aerial display concept has compelled teams of conservators and structural engineers to develop innovative solutions to overcome the challenges of decay on a grand scale. The Box is a pioneer for conservation of Plymouth city’s heritage and a new ‘safe home’ for Plymouth’s important national collections and archives.

How are the figureheads being restored?
Due to the scale of the figureheads (the largest being 4 meters high, 1 meter wide and weighing 2 tonnes), conservators have pioneered a new technique using Sonic Tomography scanning - a method designed for measuring decay cavities within living trees that had never been used for conserving wooden sculptures before. This new method enabled conservators to assess the internal condition of the timber of each figure head. When scanning both HMS Topaz, and HMS Tamar, their condition was found to be severely degraded, yielding very little structural integrity to each figurehead, which enabled conservators to act quickly to restore them.

In most cases the Sonic Tomography showed such severe internal degradation through rot damage that the figureheads had to be carefully and systematically deconstructed, revealing internal timber so severely damaged that it resembled saturated compost, only retaining its structural integrity at the very outer carved surface. Each independent section then had to undergo controlled drying, in order to minimize warping and shrinkage of the timber, in large purpose-built humidity chambers.

Each figurehead has required full conservation, consolidation and restoration alongside a redesign of the existing mounting systems to facilitate suspension of the objects by steel cables. The colourful exteriors were not original and the paintwork hid internal decay, including a multitude of repairs with glass reinforced plastic and layers of paintwork which damaged the structural integrity of each sculpture.

Once the structural integrity of each sculpture was restored, one of the challenges of restoring the figureheads was how to faithfully replicate the original colour scheme of each individual sculpture. The conservation team they did cross section paint analysis to determine the original colours of each figurehead as they had been painted over many times. They were also able to track down a set of 1912 full colour cigarette cards featuring the navy’s most famous figureheads from the previous century, which included HMS Calcutta one of the figureheads being restored for The Box. Conservators made up a palette of colours inspired by the cigarette cards that was then used to restore each of the 14 figureheads when they came to be repainted.

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.”

Hans Thompson and Maxwell Malden Co-founders and 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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