Grassendale Figurehead

Monday 9 July 2018

In June 2006, I was in contact with the Rauma Maritime Museum in Finland about the original figureheads in its collection. The museum's director, Captain Hannu Vartiainen, told me of the museum's plan to replicate the figurehead of a ship built in 1885 at Workington by R Williamson & Son for R W Leyland & Co of Liverpool. Named after a district of the City of Liverpool, the Grassendale was sold by its first British owners to new owners in Rauma in 1899 and renamed Imperator Alexander I, reflecting Finland's association with Imperial Russia. In 1918 she was sold again and renamed Ernst and under this name, she was lost on 25 April 1920 after she struck a First World War mine off Hertha's Flak in Jutland.

She sank with all hands to a depth of 45m and, in many ways, this replication can be seen as a fitting memorial to the lost men.


Concerned about the authenticity of the replication, the museum decided to look for a carver with an understanding of just how a traditional figurehead should be carved. For this they needed a craftsman with not only the skill but also the feel for the style of late nineteenth-century British woodcarving.

Andy Peters had established his credentials on a previous project in 2002 with the replication of a female figurehead from the Jersey-built barque Roseau, now above the door of the Maritime Museum in St Helier. With a reputation for the quality of his work, Andy had established Maratima Woodcarving, a workshop in Gloucestershire, where the art of the ships' carver could be practised, to ensure the preservation of such skills, and to hopefully pass them on to future generations. Since 1999 he has held the post of ships' carver to the Swedish East India Company, initially to carry out research to design the decorative work, and then to carve the designs.

Rolls-Royce (Finland), based in Rauma, showed a great interest in the scheme and agreed to sponsor the entire project. And so began a carving project that would take just over a year's work, culminating in a replication of the lost figurehead of the Grassendale as near to the original as is humanly possible.


The only known views of the figurehead to have survived were two small ones of the bow images taken in the early 1900s during her time in Finnish ownership. From these grainy sepia images (one a three-quarter view and one a side view from quite a distance) it had been possible to establish that the Grassendale was given a large full-length female figurehead, typical of hundreds if not thousands, of merchant figureheads carved at this time. The challenge was to create a profile of comparable images from surviving figureheads of the same age, size and general stance.

Using my database of over 20,000 photographic images, with images of historic views of figureheads still on the bow to carvings that have survived in both private and public collections around the world, we were able to reach a consensus on the size, style and form the replica figurehead would take. It was then time for the hard work to begin.


The most important factor was the purchase of sufficient quantities of wood. In 1885, supplies of well-seasoned wood were still relatively plentiful and the original carver would have had access to large pieces of timber, needing less lamination to create the size of block required for a large 8ft-high figure. Today, lamination is essential to create the volume of wood required. Swedish Redwood Pine (Pinus sylvestris) was chosen for its carving quality and for being readily available in 230 x 50mm (9 x 2in) planks. In total, over 150m (492ft) of timber was used.


To achieve the size of block needed, the planks were glued under pressure using Balcotan, a one part polyurethane glue that reacts with the moisture content in the wood; its foaming property inhibits the problem of small voids being left between the layers. When finished, the figure was made up of twenty laminates to form the width of the figure, and five laminates to span the overall depth of the carving. Due to the rapid movement of such large sections of timber, Andy was only able to plane and cut a limited amount of wood that could be laminated during a working day, working from a series of drawings produced to calculate the shape of each piece, and then made into paper templates, cutting away surplus areas.

Careful consideration was taken during the lamination process as to the direction of the grain, to allow ease of carving whilst at the same time maintaining the overall strength and stability of the timber. This groundwork took about three weeks to complete and when the rough overall shape of the figure was established, the real work of carving could start. Andy says, “For me, the real challenge in undertaking such work is to attempt to capture the essential qualities of the original carver, to create something that feels as if it were from the 1800s. There can be no hint of anything alluding to our age, and this is where real discipline is required.”


This is in fact the pivotal factor in Andy's great ability to understand and at the same time interpret in three dimensions, the true essence of a nineteenth century ship's figurehead. He continues, “I find the only way to attempt this is by dropping all ideas, expectations and personal preferences, to become totally absorbed in what is before you. Once thinking starts, there is association, comparison and an inevitable compromise of ideas.” This attention to detail and authenticity was evident in the manner of carving as well. All carving work was carried out by hand without the use of chainsaws, pneumatic chisels, or any other mechanical aids, the only exception being a chain winch connected to an overhead RSJ, enabling Andy to move the 2.4m (8ft) tall, and half-a-ton figure whilst carving.


By mid-March 2007, the block figure was ready to be transformed into a beautiful young woman of the 1880s. The hard, heavy technical constructional work was completed; the time for skill and craft to take over was at hand. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Andy's chisels are antique, built-up over his working career. The only modern ones are from Sorby's of Sheffield. To date, they are the only chisels he has found that stand up to the pressure of such large-scale work and are the ones he starts a project with. Standing in front of the finished blocked figurehead, it has an almost robotic and hard look to it, with a graduating series of hard, flat lines, laminated one on top of the other. The skill now is to pare down these hard lines, cutting away with each stage of the process, more and more of the bulk.

Taking shape

Within days it is possible to see the rough outline of the figure beginning to take shape. With her left arm across the lower chest and the right arm down the side of the body, this attitude of the body can be clearly seen in the two early surviving views of the original figurehead, plus in numerous historic black and white photographs taken in the early 1900s showing other figureheads still on the bow. They are a typical design feature on merchant figureheads throughout the whole of the nineteenth century, designed by the ship carvers to limit the chances of accidental damage to vulnerable limbs, while at sea. Likewise, the folds on the dress begin to take shape as they flow away from the body down towards the base, with many of the vague areas actually becoming obvious once the figure takes shape in three dimensional form.


With well over 15% of the original bulk of the block removed, the pace of carving begins to slow down as details start to emerge. Using ever finer chisels to carve at this transitional stage of the project, Andy now stands back from the modern day conceptions of form and style. The carved work has to be bold and crisp in order to survive in a very harsh environment. A ship's figurehead had to endure the constant drenching of salt water, and the changes in humidity and temperature. Once installed on the bow, any repairs or re-painting had to be done from a sling, perched precariously over the bow. These factors affect the style of carving – the details have to be bold so that it can be seen from a distance, and it would be easy to over-carve her, putting in unnecessary detail that would be painted away. During the working life of a typical ship's figurehead, it could be painted twenty or even thirty times, adding an extra 5mm (3/16in) or 6mm (1/4in) to the original surface, and it is only during widespread restoration on original carvings that most of this hidden detail can be found. While this new Grassendale would not be going to sea, she had to be carved as though she were, the ethos of the project being that she should be as authentic in every detail to the lost original.

Lost tradition

In June 2007, Andy took the unfinished carving to the museum in Rauma in order to demonstrate his skills. For six days, part of the museum's main gallery became a temporary workshop where Andy showed visitors how a traditional figurehead was carved. Once finished, the figurehead was painted by Museum staff an overall white with a traditional oil-paint containing natural pigments, to emphasise the quality of the carving. She was then mounted on the gallery's wall, weighing in at around 300kg, where she will remain as a reminder of an almost lost tradition that is still very much alive in the work of British woodcarver, Andy Peters.

Museum director Captain Vartiainen said, “The Museum is more than 110% happy with the figurehead. We consider it important the original figurehead was carved in the UK and the carving was done by Andy Peters. I consider that at the moment there is only Andy who has the skills to carve such a work of art.”

Many shipbuilders' records were lost during the Second World War and the name of Grassendale's original carver is not known for sure. However, if this unknown craftsman were to look on the face of this new figurehead, he would certainly see a familiar countenance.