Friday, October 8, 2010

Lions, Dragons, and Ornamental Carvings

Old Ship Figure-heads and Sterns: with which are Associated Galleries, Hancing-pieces, Catheads and Divers other Matters that Concern the “Grace and Countenance” of Old Sailing Ships./ by L.G. Carr-Laughton

In author Laughton’s book, figureheads and sterns extravagantly display the art of decoration and wood carving on British, French, Spanish and Dutch ships from the 14th through the 19th centuries. As he explains, the custom of ship and sail decoration began much, much earlier, with carvings of scaly or winged symbols, draggons and lions, of religious or state importance. The carvings adorned the flagship of a fleet with its painted sails, representing style and culture. He recounts:

“We do know that shipwrights of this period… wished their ships to carry an impression of their “terror and majesty” to their enemies, and to all beholders…” p. 12

Canons being fitted to military ships along the port and starboard sides, were extended around the sterns in galleries, built above and below the quarterdecks, or walkways for masters of the ships.

Originally written in 1925, Laughton’s description of ornamentation is decisive, and supplied with examples and footnotes; he maintains his intent was to produce a popular, as opposed to scholarly, work. He begins the chapter on figureheads by noting that “we remember the analogy between a ship and a living creature”, p. 63, giving illustrations of early Greek, Phoenician, and Roman ships’ animal carvings. A review of the chapter on sterns compares similar time periods. He includes a note on American ships of the 1800s with entire human figures, an example of the evolution of figurehead design.

The book includes 48 pages of plates showing examples from built models, photographs and illustrations held by various maritime museums. Its ten chapters are supported by a subject index, a ship index, and lists of illustrations in color, black and white, and numerous line drawings. For the model builder, the chapters following an introduction are: Fashion in Ornament, the Limitation of Ornament, The Head, Figure-Heads, the Stern, Quarter Galleries and Badges, The Broadside, Inboard Works, and Painting and Gilding. The book in the Library is a republications by Dover Publications, 2001.

Explanation of terms used from Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Second edition. Edited by I.C.B. Dear and Peter Kemp. Published by Oxford University Press, 2005. 971 p. :
Figurehead: “an ornamental carved and painted figure erected … below the bowsprit (forward of the vessel, at the bow) as a decorative emblem…” p. 302.

Flagship: “in navies, the ship that carries the admiral’s flag… in mercantile shipping lines, the ship of the commodore or senior captain of the line.” p. 314

Gallery: “the walk built out from the admiral’s or captain’s cabin in larger sailing warships…” p. 335.

Quarter deck: “in sailing ships, it is the part of the ship from which it was commanded by the captain, master or officer of the watch… or where the captain used to walk…” p. 679.

Stern: the after end of the vessel, p. 834.

Books in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library are available for borrowing by Museum members. See the book Old Ship Figure-heads and Sterns/ by L.G. Carr-Laughton in our online catalog.

Figure-heads: see genuine figure-heads on display from our permanent collection at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

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