Cutty Sark Reopens With Gallery of 'Long John Silver' Figureheads

Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, March 21, 2012

Pitt the Younger looks pale but bright-eyed, General Gordon ruddy enough to fear for his blood pressure and Florence Nightingale, one hand on hip, positively outraged that the other is missing.

The largest collection of historic figureheads in the world, assembled in the early 20th century by a fanatical collector of merchant shipping memorabilia, will be displayed together for the first time from 26 April when the clipper ship Cutty Sark reopens in Greenwich, south London, next month after a five-year, £50m restoration after fire damage.

Many of the figureheads are more than 200 years old, and their hard life, stuck out in front of the ships and lashed by every wave and storm, shows in rotting timbers, corroding bolts and nails holding apparently solid hunks of oak together, and layer upon layer of whatever paint was available when they urgently needed some makeup before heading into port. Some must have been repainted at sea, many crudely, as if with a mop, and rough as a cheese-grater from embedded sand and grit.

The team at Richard Rogers Conservation in Surrey, who have spent months working on them, are carefully preserving every scrap of original paint or historic repair, no matter how horrible.

Jessica Lewis, curator of the Cutty Sark, said the number with missing arms was partly because many were made with detachable limbs, which were removed while at sea to protect them and only replaced when the ship was returning to harbour. The assemblage includes a sad pile of disembodied heads, hands and feet, including one hand clutching a purse of sovereigns that came into the collection with a tattered label stating it was all that survived of a ship wrecked at Ayr in Scotland.

Many figures ended up as gaudy as carousel horses, but General Havelock – also commemorated in a far more pompous bronze in Trafalgar Square – still has his original subtle paint finish, all that was holding the rotten wood together.

Most of the figures are buxom, red-cheeked blonde or brunette women, but there are also soldiers, sailors, politicians including Pitt, Gladstone and Disraeli, and a splendidly carved little dog from a ship called Sirius.

One of the most imposing is Thermopylae, a magnificently moustachioed and helmeted classical warrior. To the disappointment of the Cutty Sark crew, the carving proved to be from a late-19th-century steam ship, not the clipper Thermopylae, which in 1872 raced the Cutty Sark from Shanghai to London with a cargo of tea – and won by seven days after Cutty Sark lost her rudder. The Cutty Sark later beat Thermopylae on a wool race back from Australia.

All the figureheads were collected by Sydney Cumbers, known as Long John Silver after he took to wearing an eyepatch to cover an eye lost in a childhood accident. His house and museum in Gravesend, Kent, was named The Look-Out and his wife – the Mate – is said to have groaned whenever he came back from an expedition with an empty car, because she knew he had bought something so big it was following by lorry.

He gave the collection to the Cutty Sark in 1953, in memory of Britain's merchant seamen and the Little Ships that went to the rescue of the army at Dunkirk in the second world war. There was never space to show them all together and dozens remained in store or were loaned to other museums. Now they will be on view in the new exhibition space created in the dry dock beneath the hull.