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August 1, 2005

-- Travel --

Maritime Sculpture

Figurehead display shows art of the sea

By Teague Neal

Many of the world’s best-kept treasures are in the unknown, new things in life that take some time to learn about and appreciate.

Ship figureheads are among these treasures, and a great collection of them is on permanent display at Mystic Seaport.

Figureheads are large pieces of wood that were transformed into true treasures by crew members – often the ship’s carpenters – who carved them during their spare moments aboard 18th and 19th century ships.

The figureheads were attached to the bow of the ship, gracing the front.

The exhibit contains some truly special art pieces with panache and flair.

The visitor steps into a dimly-lit space lined from floor to ceiling with a wide variety of imposing figureheads.

The figures, depicting people from around the globe, are hung high above the floor, boasting both vibrant and muted colors.

One of the more memorable figureheads is a Scotsman in traditional red and green tartan. It was once part of the Donald McKay, a clipper ship that started sailing in 1855.

Another figurehead from the farflung Far East decorated the H.M.S. Asia that ran routes out of Bombay, India. Its figurehead of a man in a turban has incredible detail, which spotlights the immense effort the artists must have put into these masterpieces.

Sharing the space with the first-rate figurehead collection is a small group of impressive model ships. One that really had an interesting use of color was an English fourth rate ship with two sets of owners who lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts at the time. That ship set off from New England on a 33,000-mile journey to Japan through the Mediterranean and back again.

During both world wars, the ship served as part of the British Navy.

Beyond the beauty of the figureheads and models, what is intriguing is the eventful and fascinating history of each of these pieces.

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