The covers are off as The Box reveals its figurehead flotilla

The covers are off as figurehead flotilla is revealed

10 March 2020

The Box unveiled its impressive collection of 19th century ship’s figureheads for the first time today.

The covers that have been hiding the 14 monumental sculptures since they were installed in late 2019 have been removed, revealing the full flotilla.

13 of the figureheads, the majority of which are on loan from The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), are suspended from the ceiling in a striking aerial display. The largest, Royal William, stands on the floor ready to welcome visitors into the building when it opens on Saturday 16 May.

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of The NMRM said:

This is a stunning interpretation of the figureheads loaned by The National Museum of the Royal Navy. Usually figureheads are remote and difficult to see up close, so how exciting is it to be able to get so close to them and really see why they are so intriguing?

With funding support from Interreg through its ‘Maritime, Military and Industrial Atlantic Heritage’ (MMIAH) project, Plymouth City Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, the figureheads underwent a huge restoration programme before they arrived at The Box. The work to consolidate, conserve, repair and repaint them was led by Orbis Conservation in London with South Molton’s Hugh Harrison Conservation and Helston’s Mainmast Conservation.

A group of Royal Naval ship's figureheads at The Box

Plymouth City Council Leader, Tudor Evans OBE said:

Every week brings another monumental moment for The Box – and this is big news in more ways than one! The scale of the figureheads is really something to behold, as is the huge amount of vision and work that has taken place to conserve and display them in such a unique way. They’re just awesome!

Plymouth City Council Shadow Leader, Ian Bowyer said:

We’ve been talking for months about how the figureheads will bring a real ‘wow factor’ to The Box, and seeing them all displayed without their covers for the first time today proves we were right. They look terrific as they ‘sail’ across either side of the main entrance.

The challenging task of researching and developing the flotilla concept fell to The Box’s exhibition designers, Event and saw them collaborate with staff, architects, structural engineers and a specialist mount-maker. The end result uses a system of mounts and suspension points that are fixed directly to the ceiling, with fittings that are visibly discreet but robust enough to hold each figurehead’s weight.

Abby Coombs, Associate Director and Project Lead at Event said:

These huge objects say so much about Plymouth’s relationship with the sea and its role as a gateway to the rest of the world. When we were developing our design vision for The Box, we felt they needed a starring role. The entrance space to The Box is triple-height and filled with light, and this gave us the idea of positioning the figureheads up high, as though they were still on the prows of ships gliding in from the harbour. Putting together this challenging display has been a real team effort. It’s wonderful seeing our vision come to life. We’re really pleased with the results.

Councillors Tudor Evans and Ian Bowyer with the Windsor Castle figurehead

The 14 figureheads are:

  • Aurora: a 2.5m tall female bust made in 1855 whose ship served in Canada
  • Basilisk: a 2.5m tall female bust wearing a crown. Made in 1847, her ship served in the Crimean War (1853-6), then travelled the world to North America, the West Indies, Far East and New Guinea
  • Cadmus: a 2.5m tall male bust of the King of Thebes. Made in 1855 his ship served in the West Indies, Mediterranean and North America
  • Calcutta: a 4m high male bust wearing a turban dating from the 1830s whose ship was built in Bombay
  • Calliope: a 2m high female figurehead wearing a crown and veil. Made in 1837, her ship was involved in the First China (or Opium) War (1839-42) and also spent time in Australia and New Zealand
  • Centaur: a 2m tall half male, half horse figure dating from 1842. His ship was involved in anti-piracy work in West Africa and then served in the Baltic during the Crimean War (1853-6)
  • Defiance: a large figurehead measuring over 4m tall. Made in 1859, he’s a classical bearded warrior with armour and a plumed helmet
  • Minerva: a mystery figurehead all in white based on the Greek Goddess of wisdom, the arts and war. Although she was not accepted by the Navy for HMS Minerva she was carved and installed at Devonport Dockyard
  • Royal William: the largest of our figureheads at over 4m tall. Made in 1833, he’s a standing figure of King William IV dressed in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter
  • Sphinx: a 2.5m bust of a turbaned, bearded male. Made in 1845, his ship was stationed in the East Indies, served in the Second Burma War (1852-3) and transported troops in the Crimean War (1853-6)
  • Sybille: a 2.5m tall female figurehead. Made in 1846, her ship served in the Second China (or Opium) War (1856-60). She may be based on a portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), an English actress, model and mistress of Lord Nelson
  • Tamar: a large bearded river God measuring over 4m tall. He dates from the 1860s and his ship served in Egypt and Hong Kong
  • Topaze: a 2.5m tall female figurehead dating from the 1850s. Her ship visited Easter Island and brought two statues back to England which are now in the collections of the British Museum
  • Windsor Castle: a large figurehead of Queen Victoria measuring over 4m tall. Dating from the mid-1850s, she wears a gold crown and holds a gold orb. She was brought onshore to the RN Barracks at Devonport, and then located at the Royal Navy Engineering College at Manadon, HMS Cambridge at Wembury and the South Yard of HM Naval Base, Devonport

Find out more about the figureheads.