Ship Figureheads

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Date range: 
19th century
Port Adelaide,
South Australia,
United Kingdom

The South Australian Maritime Museum has a collection of seventeen ship’s figureheads- carved wooden sculptures which ornamented the bow of a sailing vessel. Fourteen of the figureheads are on display in the museum and three kept in storage. This is the largest collection of ship figureheads in the Southern Hemisphere. The figureheads were sourced and acquired by Vernon Smith, Honorary Curator of the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum over a period of fifty years. Most have excellent provenance and well documented chain of ownership, including photographs of the figureheads displayed in the homes, gardens and hotels Smith retrieved them from.The oldest in the collection is from the Ville de Bordeaux, (1836) while more recent figureheads include the Garthneill (formerly Inverneill) built in 1895 Glasgow, and the Glenpark built 1897 in Glasgow.


The collection has great aesthetic significance; they are beautiful examples of an ancient and highly specialised form of maritime art. Figureheads date back to Phoenician times and were created to protect vessels and their crew. They became a symbol of the ship and were invested with superstitions. They were modelled after generic figures, saints, or relatives of the owner or captain.  

This figurehead collection is of state and national significance.  Most of the figureheads are from 19th century sailing ships that carried cargo and passengers between Adelaide and the United Kingdom. They were crucial in provisioning and sustaining the early colony of South Australia and have direct relevance to the Bond Store where they are displayed.  

Many of the figureheads were retrieved from shipwrecks and relate to significant historical events. South Australia’s rugged coastline is littered with shipwrecks, and the figureheads help tell this story of maritime disaster. One of the most famous disasters was the sinking of the Star of Greece off the coast of Port Willunga in July 1888.  Wrecked less than 200 metres from the shore, a series of mishaps and lack of preparedness meant that 17 passengers perished in front of onlookers. The Star of Greece figurehead is part of the Museum’s collection and has been used to help tell this story.

This collection is significant in terms of the history of the Port Adelaide Institute and the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum established in the 1870s. The Nautical Museum acquired handicrafts and mementos from sailors who docked in the Port as well as other artefacts relating to South Australia’s maritime history. Honorary Curator Vernon Smith actively searched for these figureheads, locating them in private homes, yards and sheds.  He documented this search and because of this, the figureheads are well provenanced with a recorded chain of ownership.

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