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Carving a Path

British sculptor Glyn Foulkes keeps the art of crafting vessel figureheads alive.
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There was a time, dating back to the Phoenicians and Egyptians, when any ship worth her salt had a figurehead at the bow. The toothy, bug-eyed figureheads on Viking ships were intended to ward off evil spirits, while the boar’s heads on ships of ancient Greece symbolized acute vision and ferocity. Romans used a centurion to represent valor in battle. On English ships, the lion was a favorite, but the figurehead of a partially clothed woman became the most common, enticing the ocean gods to let the vessel proceed without harm.

Glyn Foulkes hasn’t created a figurehead for a ship in many years, but the British carver is one of the last leading artisans still making them—most often, these days, to adorn pubs and restaurants. The one ship’s figurehead, of a mermaid, still in his workshop was commissioned by someone who did not pay his bill.

The lost art of figurehead carving is alive and well in the home of British carver Glyn Foulkes, who hopes that tradition will one day find its way back into fashion.

The lost art of figurehead carving is alive and well in the home of British carver Glyn Foulkes, who hopes that tradition will one day find its way back into fashion.

“Today, most of my work fitted to ships and boats comes from carving the traditional nameplates that are attached to the transom,” he says.

Foulkes studied sculpture at Southampton Art School and went on to Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. He has worked with a variety of materials, and most of his sculpture is figurative, from naturalistic portraiture to church architecture and heraldic devices.

Inside the door of his small, concrete garage is a space that looks almost ready to fall down. Tools of every shape and size hang from the walls and roof, with some stored inside a wooden chest. Overlooking it all is a 5-foot-tall figurehead of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Foulkes started it after London Boat Show organizers commissioned him to create the figurehead and spend the show’s 10 days demonstrating the art of figurehead carving.

Tools of every shape and size hang from the walls and roof, with some stored inside a wooden chest.

Tools of every shape and size hang from the walls and roof, with some stored inside a wooden chest.

It’s taken years since then for Foulkes to finish it. He spent a considerable amount of time in the galleries of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, England, researching images of Nelson. Then, he made a half-size clay model of the figurehead, just as carvers used to produce a maquette for clients, to show what they hoped the finished carving would look like. Foulkes’ clay model of Nelson also served as a three-dimensional guide for the finished work.

Unlike a couple hundred years ago, when a carver could find a solid block of wood for a figurehead, Foulkes’ block has laminated sections. He prefers lime wood for carving, but the choice of materials depends on where the finished figurehead will stand, with teak and pitch pine being good for figureheads displayed outside. To create the block for carving, Foulkes cut out shapes from planks of lime wood with a jigsaw, then laminated and added a few extra blocks to form the elbow of the left arm and the telescope.

His first stage of carving is done by roughing out the basic shapes with a chainsaw and gouges. Then, he shifts to smaller, more precise chisels to fill in detail. Mistakes can be remedied by adding new wood, but that procedure is rare.

Figurehead carving is surely not for the impatient. Foulkes pours his skill and undefinedpassion for the craft into a range of projects created using traditional hand tools.

Figurehead carving is surely not for the impatient. Foulkes pours his skill and undefinedpassion for the craft into a range of projects created using traditional hand tools.

Once the carving is done, the painting begins, transforming the block of wood into a human-looking figure. Foulkes has a separate shed where two-part polyurethane paints bring life to his sculpture. The figurehead is then coated with two coats of clear varnish, and the job is done.

The Nelson figurehead is looking for a home, with a price tag of $30,000. In the meantime, Foulkes is carving nameplates for yachts, using gold leaf to add detail.

“This is the bread-and-butter work these days, and the demand for large carvings is diminishing,” he says. “There is some demand for church carvings.”

And, of course, there are the pubs. Over at The Jolly Sailor, on the banks of the River Hamble, two of Foulkes’ figureheads adorn the outside; both need restoration work, having been exposed to the elements for several years. Close by is Mermaids waterside restaurant, where Foulkes’ carving of a mermaid adorns the rafters.

British sculptor Glyn Foulkes keeps the art of crafting vessel figureheads alive.

British sculptor Glyn Foulkes keeps the art of crafting vessel figureheads alive.

He enjoys creating those types of pieces but hopes that tradition will find its way back into fashion, allowing him to start carving figureheads anew for vessels heading out to sea.

“It would be nice to see a new trend where owners wanted to decorate their yachts with figureheads again,” Glyn says, “but that may be a long time coming.”

To see more sculptures., click here.

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