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Talks uncover fascinating history of 176-year-old figurehead put on display after conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool

Figurehead Conservation Talks

Talks at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool capture fascinating history of rediscovered figurehead.

The four-foot tall figurehead was removed from HMS Trincomalee in 1999, whilst it was undergoing restoration 

Carefully stored away, the figurehead was rediscovered in 2016 before undergoing conservation and redisplay

The conservation and display of a wooden figurehead which was rediscovered seventeen years after it was removed from a 19th century Royal Navy ship is the fascinating subject of two free talks at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool.  

The talks, called The Soul of the Ship – HMS Trincomalee’s Figurehead, are included in a museum ticket and take place on Wednesday 1 September, 2pm and Monday 6 September, 2pm.

Figureheads have long captured the imagination of both sailors and landlubbers alike. Carved sculptures that decorate the bows of wooden sailing ships, they were often thought of as the soul of a ship, offering good luck and protection from the perilous journeys it made. As such, they were often lovingly cared for by a superstitious crew.

The Soul of the Ship

The Soul of the Ship talk charts the incredible 150-year journey taken by the figurehead from its original installation on the ship in 1845 to its removal in 1999.  It was carefully packed away and rediscovered in 2016 during the transfer to the National Museum. 

Curatorial staff at the museum quickly realised that the figurehead was the carving designed and produced by Hellyer and Sons in 1845, at a cost of about £12 – or £1500 in today’s money - when the ship’s first figurehead needed to be replaced.  

Trincomalee was built in 1817 for the Royal Navy in Bombay (modern-day Mumbai). The figurehead depicts a turbaned man, understood to represent a native of Sri Lanka where Trincomalee is a port. This kind of turbaned figure was a commonly used design for ships built in India which were often named after regions of the subcontinent.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool’s Senior Curator Clare Hunt explains: “Our man was removed from the actual ship in the 1990s and since then he’s been waiting in the side-lines for his time in the spotlight again.  He is in pride of place in the gallery dedicated to telling the story of the ship, from building to restoration giving a real 'wow factor' and a big, colourful welcome to visitors.” Our figurehead is particularly special because it comes from a surviving vessel. It also has undeniable charm and symbolises HMS Trincomalee's Indian heritage in a way that cannot be easily detected elsewhere on the ship.

Conservation of the figurehead was generously funded by the Art Fund, The Friends of HMS Trincomalee and the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe and in January 2020, Orbis Conservation Ltd were appointed and immediately set to work to strip back the many layers of paint to find out the condition of the carving beneath, and to test the old paint layers for age and colour.

Upon finding red, green and gold, it was decided to repaint the figurehead in the colours he sported in 1931 when a cigarette card depicting him was issued.

September Talks

The free talks by senior curator Clare Hunt take place on Wednesday 1 September, 2pm and Monday 6 September, 2pm and are included in a museum ticket which are available on www.nmrn.org.uk

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