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William Falconer's Dictionary of the MarineReference Works
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HEAD of the Ship
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HEAD, an ornamental figure erected on the continuation of a ship's stem, as being expressive of her name, and emblematical of war, navigation, commerce, &c.

The heads which have any affinity to war or navigation, are in general either historical, as referring to some of the deities or heroes of antiquity; or allegorical, as alluding to some of the natural consequences of battle, or the virtues most essential to a life exposed to perpetual danger. Thus, in the former sense, they represent a Neptune, an Alcides; a Mars, an Achilles; a Minerva, or a Jason; and in the latter they produce a Magnanime, an Intrepid, a Revenge, or a Victory.

The head of a ship however has not always an immediate relation to her name, at least in the British navy. Various instances might be produced to shew, that our artists, as it suits their conveniency or judgment, can dispense with this supposed idea of propriety. Hence we sometimes observe the place of a Jason supplied by a Medea; or a beast of prey made the reprerentative of an illustrious lady. The same liberty of design may therefore, with equal propriety, be allowed to symbolize the successes of our arms, by a groupe of heterogeneous figures, of sundry shapes and sizes, according to the artist's opinion of their superiority or subordination. Their attitude and situation, as well as their size must accordingly depend, in a great measure, on the space into which they are to be crowded; for although the figures may be of equal importance in themselves, yet as there is not room for them all, as large as the life, on a ship's head, it becomes expedient to diminish a few, in order to give place to others. The emblems by which allegorical figures are usually characterized in painting, poetry, and sculpture, are not always thought necessary in a work of this kind, nor even the postures in which these figures are exhibited. And indeed, if we reflect with how much labour and application the workman has endeavoured to fill up every vacancy with some little figure of a convenient form and size, we ought rather to admire his ingenuity than cenfure him for a violation of those general rules of art, by which it is supposed necessary, on such occasions, to relieve the eye from a scene of perplexity and confusion.

The heads of many of our ships of war have undoubtedly great beauty and propriety; and candour must acknowledge that some of the most elegant and judicious have been borrowed from the French designs, which are never left to the invention of illiterate mechanics. A multitude of ornaments appears rather unnecessary in any building calculated for the purposes of war. If there be any general rule to determine the subjects, and the quantity of sculpture employed in ship building, it seems to be connected with the ideas of dignity and simplicity. These too are the genuine characteristics of the Grecian and Roman orders of architecture, as opposed to that perplexity, and rage for embellishment, which peculiarly distinguish the Gothic. It is hardly possible for us to recollect the various disasters to which a single hero, or goddess, on the head of a ship, is exposed by ternpestuous weather, battle, and the unexpected encounter of ships, without trembling for the havoc and indecency that may happen in an assemblage of gods and conc-shells, princesses and satyrs; heroes, blunder-busses, sea monsters, little children, globes and thunder-bolts, and all the apparatus necessary to constitute the head of a ship of the first class in our navy.

In plate IV. we have sketched four heads, which are calculated for vessels of different sizes and constructions. Fig. 6. exhibits an image of Hercules brandishing his club over the heads of Cerberus, calculated for a ship of the line. Fig. 7. represents Jupiter riding on his eagle, and armed with his thunders, being a suitable head for a capital ship. The eagle displayed by fig. 8. may serve for a frigate; and fig. 9. which expresses an incumbent dragon, is very proper for any small vessel with a projecting beak or prow. These figures have been selected from many others, because, being very rarely used to decorate the head of a ship, it is possible that several of our readers may never before have observed them. The two first, which are usually called image-heads, are bold, warlike, and classical. The eagle in the third is certainly a proper emblem of dignity, force, and velocity: and it is apprehended neither the representation of the latter, nor any other figure in that position, are to be met with amongst our shipping.

Plate 4

Plate IV

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© Derived from Thomas Cadell's new corrected edition, London: 1780, page 146, 2004
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