A Ship’s Figurehead is the carved wooden decoration at the prow of a ship. Their peak of popularity was between the 16th and 20th centuries. The apex of figureheads occurred during the age of tall ships and fighting sail. As with other ship ornamentation, the purpose of the figurehead was often to indicate the name of a ship in a non-literate society; in the case of naval ships, it was also to demonstrate the wealth and power of the owner. At the height of the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1725), some ships boasted gigantic figureheads, often weighing several tons.
HMS Ajax was a 74-gun British ship of the line, launched on May 2, 1809. Ajax earned Battle Honors during the Napoleonic Wars at San Sebastian in 1813 and during the Crimean War in 1854-55, when she was involved in the Bombardment of Bomarsund, Finland.
During a storm in February 1861, the captain and five members of the crew were lost. The fifteen surviving Ajax crew were decorated for bravery and most promoted. After being converted in 1846 to a blockship, she was finally broken up in 1864.
Today, the ship’s figurehead for Ajax is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, U.K., a superb, vigorous example of the woodcarver’s craft. The figurehead was carved wearing the British Order of the Bath, possibly reflecting Battle Honors won by a Sea Lord of the time.
Ship figureheads belong to a bygone age of tall ships and seaborne battles, and each piece produced in fine china by Doulton tells a story all its own.
Introduced between 1980 and 1983, the Ships Figureheads Series represented a new genre for Royal Doulton. The series is characterized by meticulous detail and historical accuracy, and represent actual historic figureheads.
Eric Griffiths, Royal Doulton’s then-Head of Ceramic Sculpture, commissioned freelance artist Sharon Keenan to produce these models based on her own research in museums and dockyards on both sides of the Atlantic.