Thursday, May 04, 2006

Orphaned Figureheads


As a boy growing up in the former whaling port of New Beford, Massachusettes I was fascinated by the sense of history in the rotting docks in the harbor, abandoned for over half a century. The city itself was full of reminders of the glory days, though. There were bronze statues of whalers and beautiful oil paintings of ships under full sail in all the public buildings and many private homes as well.

The Whaling Museum on Johnnycake Hill had a 1/2 size replica of the whaling ship Lagoda, complete in detail to the last sail and line. It also has many things brought back from far off lands. Small boats, from a walrus hide Eskimo Kayak from the arctic to an outrigger dug-out canoe from the South Pacific. Strange knives and harpoon heads carved from ivory and made from iron. Clothing from around the world.

One of the most interesting art forms of the era was the ship's figurehead, usually a female form carved from wood, lovingly painted in realistic colors, and often adorned with real goldleaf. These were mounted on the ship's bow directly beneath the bowsprit facing into the waves. There are a number of these on display in the museum, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and lovingly preserved long ater their ships were wrecked, abandoned, or just rotted out from age. This Kodachrome II slide pictures a couple of them.

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