The Maritime Museum has one of Sweden’s largest and most fascinating collections of figureheads. The ships they once adorned are gone, but the figureheads remain. Walk around the museum and discover the figureheads, all of which have their own fascinating tale to tell.

Why figureheads?

The custom of building figureheads might well be as old as the art of shipbuilding itself. In ancient times, boats from various parts of the world were embellished with figures representing fearsome beasts that were there to ward off dangerous sea spirits. The ancient Egyptians carved bulls’ heads – and birds’ heads and rams’ heads as well – onto the prows of their boats as they believed they would make the voyage successful and appease the gods. The dragons’ heads on Viking ships would strike terror into the enemy, but were also designed to keep evil spirits at bay.

A captivating collection

Looking at the Maritime Museum’s large collection of figureheads, it is easy to see that the fashion in this art form has changed over the centuries. In the 17th and early 18th century, the lion was among the most common figurehead motifs; it was a symbol of power and strength. The museum houses a beautiful lion from the early 18th century that was carved from a type of Asian hardwood and probably adorned an East Indiaman (a merchant sailing ship used by the Swedish East India Company).

It was common in 19th century to have figureheads that depicted shipowners’ daughters or wives. The Maritime Museum houses several carved figures of women that once adorned the prows of merchant vessels from this period. The museum’s Memorial Hall contains the beautiful figurehead from the steam frigate Vanadis, built in the 1860s. The figurehead itself depicts Vanadis, better known as Freya, goddess of fertility in Norse mythology. It was carved by Henrik Nerpin, a highly regarded ornamental sculptor who had his workshop on Mäster Samuelsgatan in Stockholm.

The largest and heaviest of the Maritime Museum’s figureheads was carved by Admiralty sculptor Johan Törnström. The Memorial Hall contains the figurehead from the ship of the line Dygden, a gigantic red-painted male figure in antique style. The same hall contains figureheads from the frigates Eurydice and Thetis, both named after characters from Greek mythology. All three are the work of Törnström.

Admiralty sculptor Johan Törnström

Törnström grew up as a farmer’s son in Västmanland and began carving small wooden figurines at an early age. As an adult, he went on to make figureheads that sometimes weighed several tonnes.

In the 1760s and 1770s, Törnström received a solid education; he was apprenticed to the highly esteemed sculptor Adrien Masreliez and later on to Masreliez’s son Jean Baptiste. During his time in the Swedish capital, Törnström worked extensively on the decoration of the Royal Palace.

In the early 1780s, Törnström began his career as an Admiralty sculptor. This was a period during which Gustav III invested heavily in the Swedish Navy. In just three years, 10 powerful modern ships of the line and 10 frigates were built as part of a substantial rearmament of the Swedish fleet. A number of small sailing ships, brigantines and cutters were also constructed. This all took place at the naval dockyard at Karlskrona, under the management of master shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik af Chapman. Törnström was the craftsman appointed to make the figureheads.

A lengthy process

It was not exactly a rush job when figureheads, often several metres tall and weighing several tonnes, were crafted for Gustav III’s new warships. Sketches first had to be approved by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman. If these were given the green light, Törnström would make a small waxwork model which would then be sent to Stockholm to be reviewed by the Admiralty College (the agency that led the Swedish Navy) or sometimes by the king himself.

If they were approved, sometimes following a series of further critiques, Törnström would make a full-scale drawing of the proposed figurehead, which would be hung on the wall of the sculptor’s workshop at the naval dockyard in Karlskrona. Apprentices and craftsmen would build up huge, heavy wooden blocks out of which the art pieces would grow. It would often take a few years to complete a single figurehead.

A decline in the art of figurehead sculpting

When steel ships replaced wooden ships, this was essentially the end for figureheads, which were replaced on the Navy’s vessels by coats of arms. Adorning warships with figureheads began to be viewed as antiquated. Moreover, like other kinds of naval ornamentation, they were expensive to make, and when it came to saving money in the military, this was one expense that no one had a problem cutting back on.

The situation with regard to merchant vessels was somewhat different, with figureheads continuing to be used frequently up to the end of the 19th century, but this was a trend that died out at the turn of the 20th century.