'Iconic' 19th-Century Warship Figureheads To Go On Display

The 14 figureheads were unveiled after undergoing two years of restoration.

A collection of figureheads from 19th-century warships has gone on display in Plymouth after two "challenging" years of restoration.

The 14 figureheads are on loan from the National Museums of the Royal Navy and were unveiled at The Box in Plymouth, where they are suspended in the ceiling of the main atrium.

The largest of the set 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.

The collection, weighing collectively 20 tonnes underwent painstaking restoration efforts due to extensive water damage, rot and decay.

The conservation team 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.

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

The 14 restored figureheads are being suspended from the The Box's ceiling in Plymouth (Picture: Royal Navy).

Nearly all the pieces in the collection showed such severe degradation through rot that they had to be carefully deconstructed.

Conservators utilised a technique called sonic tomography scanning, allowing them to assess the internal condition of each figurehead.

Hans Thompson and Maxwell Malden, directors of Orbis Conservation responsible for the restorations, said that in terms of "scale and complexity" the project was one of the most challenging they had ever encountered.

Now all fully restored, Tudor Evans, leader of Plymouth City Council spoke about how much the collection means to the city.

"The figureheads are more than just wooden sculptures, they’re iconic symbols of the history of the city of Plymouth and the Royal Navy," he said.

Mr Evans added that the sculptures were "fantastic representations" of the work of the craftsman who made them over 200 years ago.

The museum opens to the public in May, but before then visitors can see the figures through The Box's windows.

Cover image: The William IV (King Billy) figurehead (Picture: Royal Navy).