I wander under the bow of the Cutty Sark, that turbo 19th century clipper ship that brought China tea back to London in record time for an astonishing amount of money. The clipper from below deck is now frozen in time, encased in a spectacular, glass-roofed structure that protects her from the damp, gray English weather. While I admire the shining copper clad hull towering above me, I do a 180 and am astonished. Before me are dozens of eyes staring at me, eyes from the past.
Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, and Sir Lancelot gaze unabashedly at me. So do the politicians—Pitt, Gladstone and Disraeli plus a splendidly carved little dog from a ship called Sirius. These are figureheads, most more than 200 years old. The carved wooden sculptures used to grace the prows of Britain’s sailing ships and were thought to represent the vessel’s mojo. It was believed that these bold, brightly-painted sculptures led the way, offering seamen protection from the harsh ocean and safeguarded their journey back home.
It was back in 1953 that Sydney Cumbers, commonly known as Long John Silver due to the eye patch he wore after losing an eye due to a childhood accident, gave his vast collection of figureheads to the Cutty Sark Trust. Cumbers did this in memory of Britain’s merchant seamen and the Little Ships that went to the rescue of the British army at Dunkirk at the start of WWII. I did not conduct a head count, but a docent informed me that the Long John Silver Collection is the largest collection of merchant navy figureheads in the world. I cannot imagine anyone having more.
I gaze into these faces of the past. They are wonderfully carved, exquisite figureheads—maritime art from a day gone by. The buxom, red-cheeked blonde tries to catch my eye. So do several CEO types, 19th century style with funky bowties, high shirt collars and bowler hats. That is not surprising since the sculptures were often 3-D portraits of family members of ship owners, or sometimes ship owners themselves. Then there is Thermopylae, a magnificently mustachioed and helmeted classical warrior. But I am most impressed by the dark skinned, feather clad Indian. It is Hiawatha thrusting forward with the courage and determination, the kind of stuff that sailors needed 200 years ago plying the vast oceans by the force of the wind. Sign me up on his ship. It is bound to make home port.