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Friday, 30 August 2013

Collector in focus: Long John Silver.

The bright array of figureheads displayed beneath the bow of the Cutty Sark link the ship to an eccentric collector - Long John Silver. Donated in 1953 the objects date back over 200 years and  form the largest collection of merchant figureheads.  Now, for the first time since their donation the full collection of Silvers figureheads dominate the .. of the dry berth. Providing a dramatic end to a trip to the notorious tea clipper and reminding visitors to be thankful to the freaking crazy collectors of the past.

Warning: The woman in high vis is not a figurehead

The very handsome Long John Silver 
And the er... handsome? Sydney Cumbers.
Not a pirate, nor a seaman Sydney Cumbers adopted the use of a patch after losing his right eye in childhood, denying him a life at sea that he so wanted, as an adult Silver adopted the nickname Long John Silver and obsessively collected anything to do with the merchant marine. His position as an affluent businessman in London afforded him the funds to collect merchant navy memorabilia and lease a second home in Gravesend, Kent he named ‘The Lookout.’ Acquiring all the predictable characteristics of a crazy collector; a home filled to the brim with object, a long suffering wife who Silver referred to as ‘ The Mate’ and the adoption of a costume (British naval of course) Silver became iconic and was even filmed for  by this mini documentary British Pathé - I can’t get enough of that mid 20th Century British accent

'The Mate' 

He even fitted his house to look like a ship (see above film) and referred to rooms as ’Quarter Deck’, ‘Foc's'le’, ‘Half Deck’, ‘Bridge’ and ‘Hurricane Deck’ What a fun guy.  Thanks to his obsessive collecting policies Silver managed to acquire over eighty merchant naval figureheads including representations of Snow White and Florence Nightingale, when his lease ended in 1953 he generously donated his collection of figureheads to the Cutty Sark Preservation Trust in memory of the Dunkirk flotilla, six years before his death in 1959.

But why collect merchant naval figureheads? Carved out of teak or oak then painted in bright colours the ship’s figurehead is thought to represent the spirit of the vessel, a lucky charm and a reference point for identification. They were creatures of being, celebrity or notoriety, even occasionally referenced family members of the maker. Often   many female it's  thought that they represented the only woman aboard male dominated ships.

Although Silver’s collection is the most extensive, due to the frequent changing of hands among ship owners in the 19th and 20th Century it is difficult to determine where the figureheads have been and when they were made.Chosen by the ship's original owner Jock'White Hat'Willis,the Cutty Sark's figurehead Nannie is well documented. Designed by Hercules Linton (The shipmaker) she was carved by Hellyer of blackwall, placed and officially named November 1869. An odd name for a figurehead, Nannie references a witch ( mythically witches are unable to cross water) in Robert Burn's poem 'Tam O'Shanter' who wears a sort of nightgown known as a cutty sark, but its unknown if White Hat Willis intended the name to be patrotic to his Scottish homeland or Ironic! 

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