The National Museum of the Royal Navy museums and attractions are now open - please check museum pages for opening times.

Pre-booking is essential and we encourage visitors to wear masks for their safety and the safety of others.

HMS Caroline remains temporarily closed. Find The Latest COVID-19 Updates Here.
 

 

Naval Figureheads: Restoration and Installation Part Four

Restoration and Installation

With the figureheads safely transported to their temporary homes for conservation the hard work was about to begin.

From the surface alone it was clear that many of the figureheads would need extensive work before being fit for display.

Orbis Conservation

Experts at Orbis Conservation decided to trial the use of sonic tomography, a method normally applied for measuring decay cavities within living trees. Using King William and Topaze, they concluded suitable accuracy from their results.

Orbis were able to identify areas of restoration and work carried out both historically and during their time either within the dockyard or Devonport Naval Heritage Centre.

Some had had limbs replaced, others ornate decoration added to make them more attractive for display.

Defiance in particular had undergone major restoration, and like many of the other figureheads had large areas of its surface covered in fibreglass.

Ravaged by decades at sea and their continued degradation, some were no more than soggy mulch inside. One or two were so wet in fact that water poured out when they were pierced.

Tomography Testing

All eleven figureheads were tested with tomography. Most showed significant signs of decay, with Defiance, Tamar and Calcutta showing decay to the greatest extent.

The tomograms used created coloured images of what the surface and insides of each figurehead looked like.

Brown showed timber with an acceptable structure; green evidenced weakened timber; pink highlighted areas of timber severely structurally compromised, and blue – white indicated no structural integrity or cavity at all. Only Centaur showed minimal or localised decay.

Extent of decay - Centaur & Tamar, Gristwood & Toms

The figureheads then underwent consolidation tests to test the best materials to use to strengthen them. Purpose built chambers were created to dry the insides of the figureheads with minimal warping and shrinkage.

In the final stages on conservation, the figureheads were repainted. After carrying out microscopic analysis of the original paint used, conservators chose hues based on those featured on a set of cigarette cards from 1912 that depicted Royal Navy figureheads.

With this £1 million restoration project complete, they were ready to be returned to The Box for installation. The decision was made to suspend thirteen of the figureheads from the ceiling of the museum’s atrium, with Royal William, at two tonnes and 4 metres high, remaining on the ground.

Royal William installed in The Box

But raising a flotilla of figureheads that weigh a total of 20 tonnes was no mean feat. The Box worked with structural engineers, creating mounts and suspension points that would fix directly to the ceiling. They were then able to test the structural integrity of the figureheads, stabilising them before fitting them with internal and external supports.

The effect is powerful as visitors enter and gaze up at them, much like they are gazing up at a flotilla of ships and seeing the figureheads proudly jutting forward from the prow of a ship.

Final positions in The Box

  Figurehead reveal at The Box

This is the fourth installment in the Naval Figurehead series, you can find the first three in the links below:

NAVAL FIGUREHEADS: A BRIEF HISTORY PART ONE

NAVAL FIGUREHEADS: DEVONPORT PART TWO

NAVAL FIGUREHEADS: REMOVING DEVONPORT'S FIGUREHEADS PART THREE

White BG