Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Cutty Sark Figureheads Collection: could this be Mr Darcy?

Recently, I visited the famous Cutty Sark tea clipper – something I’d been longing to do for years – where I came across the fascinating Sydney Cumbers Collection of ships’ figureheads. Mr Cumbers, born in 1870, was an avid collector of maritime artefacts dating from the 19th century which he donated to the Cutty Sark in the 1930s. Most of the figureheads (from merchant ships) bear their ship’s names but there are a few where the provenance is unknown, including the first one which caught my eye.

Could this be Mr Darcy?

My first thought was: it’s Mr Darcy! The hair, with the long sideburns, dates from about 1813, as does the cravat. It’s the right date, and, of course, he just looks right.


The selection of figureheads is interesting, and indicates a as a wide general knowledge on the part of those who named the ships. Some of the figureheads are from literature, like Hiawatha, dating it to around 1855 when Longfellow’s narrative poem on the American Indian hero was published and became a hit.


This is an unnamed classical female figure, who I think must be the Roman goddess Diana – she has a crescent moon in her hair which is one of Diana’s attributes.


There is also a figurehead labelled Zenobia, a powerful and ambitious woman who became Queen of Palmyra in 267 AD. Whoever named his ship after her was obviously a lover of the Classics.

Sir Lancelot (left) and Omar Pasha (right)

There are figureheads of literary heroes closer to home, too. Sir Lancelot, in his silver armour, somehow manages to look simultaneously both Medieval and Victorian. He, too, has a literary provenance: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a series of narrative poems telling the story of King Arthur, was immensely popular in the 1850s. Lancelot, who had sworn fealty to King Arthur, had an adulterous affair with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Tennyson sums him up, unforgettably:

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.

Next to Sir Lancelot is the dashing Omar Pasha (1806-71). He was born a Serbian Christian but converted to Islam and became famous as an Ottoman general, winning several spectacular victories over the Russians during the Crimean War. The Turks were British allies during the war and Omar Pasha was much admired.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882)

Other foreign heroes are represented, too, for example the politician and fighter for Italian Unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi – another fine figure of a man.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Female contemporary heroines are not forgotten with Florence Nightingale, ‘the lady with the lamp’; a figurehead which, in my opinion, doesn’t do her justice.


The beautiful Duchesse is one of my favourites. Who was she? French, obviously, but who? I thought that she might represent a French royal mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, for example. But Madame de Pompadour was a marquise, not a duchesse; the figure doesn’t look like her, and her hair isn’t powdered, as la Pompadour’s hair would have been.

But, back to Mr Darcy. Alas, I doubt whether it is him; the figureheads of literary heroes are men of action, like Hiawatha. Could it be Lord Byron? He was certainly well-known (or notorious) enough and famous for his good looks as well as his poetry.

Any suggestions?

Elizabeth Hawksley

Photos by Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, love the pictures! Not sure about Darcy but he is definitely a good-looking fellow, certainly a Regency dandy! Interesting that there are so many male figureheads, one tends to think that they would have been mainly females.

Also very timely post for me, Elizabeth, as I have been working on a short story featuring a ship's figurehead, rescued after a shipwreck. This is the boost I needed to finish it!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Melinda/Sarah. I'm delighted if my post has inspired you to finish your short story! I, too, was surprised that there were so many male figureheads. They come, as I said, from merchant ships, rather than Royal Navy ships. That may make a difference. I can't see a Royal Navy ship being named after a contemporary hero like Garibaldi or Omar Pasha, for example. I doubt the Foreign Office would have approved, for a start!