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Shipcarvers of North America
( Article orginally published July-August 1963 )
To those who love the sea, the period of the sailing ship, marked by fantastic journeys, exotic cargoes, and pure adventure, is the most romantic in American history, This book, which tells of the carvers who produced the figureheads which gave so much beauty and grace to sailing ships and presented each with an almost personal identity, adds greatly to the factual history of that age -- and to its romance, too.
Little is known of most of our shipcarvers and, considering the vast number of pieces that were carved, surprisingly few specimens have been preserved in public collections. Mr. Brewington, born and reared on Maryland's Eastern shore, a section replete in maritime history, and presently Assistant Director and Curator of Maritime History at the Peabody Museum of Salem, is ably fitted to the task of gathering information concerning these carvers, and of evaluating their work. He traces the development of the art in the United States and Canada, and satisfyingly includes a geographical listing of all known American shipcarvers. A supplementary chapter deals with the controversial Andrew Jackson figurehead for the U.S.S. Constitution, and details the figurehead history of that ship to the present day.
Of earliest shipbuilding, he writes: "In America, if the work done by the Spaniards be disregarded, the trade began in 1607 with the construction of the thirty ton pinnace Virginia at the mouth of the Kennebec River . . . thirteen years passed with nothing more than desultory small boat building. Then in 1620, realizing that 'to hyer [ships] . . . will eat you out of all your profitt if not your principall,' the Virginia Colony established the shipbuilding industry by importing twenty-five skilled shipwrights from England. Eight years later the colony of Massachusetts Bay welcomed a group of six shipcarpenters from the Mother Country, The French in Canada; the Dutch at New Amsterdam; the Swedes on the Delaware; the English in the other colonies; all began to build vessels. In the years between 1680 and 1714, Massachusetts alone owned 1300-odd native built vessels. . . . Not all carried figureheads, to be sure, but the larger ones of all types did. . . . Probably most of these first carvings were the work of either Edward Budd, Richard Knight, or of George Robinson, the only carvers thus far known to have been working in New England at the period."
Colonial carvings followed the English fashion of using a "carving of a Lyon" for their figurehead. As the lion gave way to other animals in England, about the middle of the 18th century, so it did in the Colonies. By the 1760s, figurehead motifs and human figures symbolizing the vessel's name began to appear in some numbers. Then, a decade after the Revolution, in Philadelphia, William Rush added something new-figures that seemed to live! Of these action figures which ushered in what was certainly the grand period of American marine decoration, Mr. Brewington says:
"The head of the ship Washington showed...`a figure of General Washington as large as life...exhibiting a capital likeness...in full uniform as commander in chief, pointing with his finger at some distant object and holding a perspective glass grasped in his left hand.' It was reported that on the arrival of the vessel in the port of London, the figurehead caused no small sensation there 'by the perfection manifest in all its parts and proportions.' Another head by Rush, an `Indian trader,' for the ship William Penn likewise caused a commotion along the London docks...`Carvers there would come in boats and lay near the ship and sketch the designs from it. They even came to take casts of plaster of Paris from the head.'...
"When the United States decided to build a navy in 1794, Rush was commissioned to design all the heads for the six frigates, four of which he carved himself. In these designs Rush gave the country the first 'group head.' That is, a head composed of more than one figure, all of an allegorical nature to symbolize what the carver considered the true import of the name of the vessel....
"Traditionally the moving, lifelike figures and the group head were not Rush's only contribution to our shipcarving. In the early 1790s at the request of Stephen Girard, he began a series of portrait busts of the great French philosophers, Rousseau, Montesquieu, etc., which were fixed to the bows of vessels bearing those names. These, it was once thought, were the first busts used in this country, but this is not correct. A bust figurehead is depicted on a Marblehead vessel drawn by Ashley Bowen in 1769." (Rush died in 1833; his son John, continued to follow the craft, though with little of his father's skill and inspiration.)