Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Figureheads

No, not the kind that head companies, corporations, or centralized government, but the kind fastened on the front of ships in the long-ago era of sailing the high seas for profit and adventure.

Perhaps the book-turned-film story The Eyes of the Amarylis explains it best, but the ship's figurehead holds a certain amount of fascination as a piece of art. From the rough trident-wielding figure dredged from the depths in a Nancy Drew novel to the weatherbeaten but lovely lady in Master and Commander, I can't help but envy the skill that creates these works of art -- and wish I possessed a little of it myself.

Sotheby's auctions and other high-end antique sales include figureheads, many in the form of busts or reduced to parts by age and retirement (often the figurehead was made with removable parts, to prevent storms and battles from breaking off limbs or decorations). View this recent bust, complete with large crack, fetching a sizeable price; for even the damage of weather and age cannot erase the elaborate detail in her gown and features, as well as the expressive nature of her face.

Modern carvers reproduce some of the most popular designs, including the ever-present mermaid, the "Jenny Lind" images which graced the fronts of ships, and a few unusual choices (soldiers, mythic figures, even gentlemen) which are seldom immortalized in romantic reminiscience on the art form. While their work is not inexpensive, the reason why is apparent when one surveys the obvious effort put into each block of wood. Some are elegant, some are comic, some are downright bawdy -- but the beauty of a handcarved image, the detail in the face of these antique figures, is unmistakeably charming.

While company-made reproductions are often available in resin or fiberglass, true romantics will always prefer the wood -- for the sheer knowledge that age, weather, and experience will leave their prints in the grain of the wood and the paint peeling from the surface -- or at least could, if they could bear to let it out of doors.

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