©Carol Olsen, May 2021.
Introduction. An unidentified figurehead needs a working name; I call this “Bird on Perch.”
Located in the Victory Conference Center in Stockholm, Sweden, I chose this as one of 17 carvings for personal study in the figurehead collection of Gunnar and Majlis Bengtsson. Their carvings were used to decorate Bengtsson hotel properties.
Style, Dimensions, Wood. What I like most about this bird figurehead is that it includes a specially-designed perch that is clutched by the bird's claws. That perch is placed before the billethead that supports the complete underside of the bird’s body.
The carving’s length is 26” (54.6cm) from the beak tip to the last tail feather, and that feather goes to the end of the black base. The greatest width is 7” (17.7cm).
Materials. Wood type: unidentified. As best I could tell working on a ladder in an under-lit area, the beak felt like metal. I did not see metal fastenings on the bird, though I expect they were used during the working life of this carving.
Colors and Modern Fastenings. The bird carving has a brown head, white body, gray wings, and yellow talons. The perch and scroll are black, as are the eyes which also have a small area of white. The beak has a painted rust-orange appearance.
Bird type and possible selection reasons.
A vessel owner’s advantages in selecting a bird figurehead include it being faster, easier, and more affordable to commission than a human figure and more craftsmen would be able to fill the order. Proportioned for any size bow space, a bird is a timeless image with well-understood qualities of speed, strength, endurance, and beauty that may also sometimes reflect a species familiar at home or within certain sailing regions.
In 2007 I contacted James Dean, Collections Manager at the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Zoology asking if he could recognize the type of bird the Bengtsson figure represents. He said it closely resembles the species Sabine’s Gull, Franklin’s Gull, or Brown-hooded Gull.[i] As he points out, while none exactly match the figurehead, if we see the carving as a stylized version, there are up to a dozen other gulls with dark plumage on the head. This assumes, as well, that the current paint still corresponds to the original.
Comparable. A similar bird figurehead at the Ålands Maritime Museum in Mariehamn, Finland that I showed Mr. Dean appeared to him to be an Arctic Tern that was carved with artistic license. He describes that terns and gulls are closely related and classified in the same family of birds with both, of course, being associated with waterways and oceans.
Other. A compendium of birds as figureheads and hull decoration does not yet exist. Instead references and images are sprinkled throughout many types of literature. Birds may be popular subjects not only for reasons suggested above, but also as emblems of home or sail regions. One early example is a painting c. 2900 BCE on a Gerzean vase.[ii] Haddon and Hornell in Canoes of Oceania provide sketches of bird-decorated canoes including the sandpiper figurehead from Truk Islands,[iii]and Hanne Poulsen describes in Danish Figureheads and Their Carvers (1977) that “several of the small schooners sailing around the Faeroes and Iceland…carried bird figures.”[iv] She specifically mentions a seagull figurehead on a 95-ton schooner named Maagen, built 1851 by E.P. Bonnesen. Separately, P.N. Thomas refers to a robin figurehead for the 1841 292-ton vessel named Robin Gray built by Thomas Adamston.[v]
Approximate Date. The similarity of the Ålands Maritime Museum bird figurehead from the 1870s-built Gothenburg-built 4-masted schooner TARNAN, provides a suggested timeframe for Bengtsson's figurehead, though the popularity of bird figureheads offers a wider possible chronology as well.
Provenance. Mr. Bengtsson told me in 2007 that this bird figurehead is one that he acquired as part of the Stig Petterson collection in Sweden.
Condition. This bird figurehead appears to be in solid condition.
[i]Personal email, 2007, Mr. James Dean, Collections Manager, Smithsonian Department of Zoology, Washington DC.
[ii]A bird appears on a vessel painted on a Gerzean vase, c. 200 BCE, shown in Petrie (1974: pl XXIII), as well as on a vessel on the West House frescro painted at Thera, shown in Marinatos (1973).
[iii]Haddon, A.C. and Hornell, J., 1936 Canoes of Oceania, Volumes I and II. Honolulu. Line drawing of sandpiper figurehead, Truk Islands, Vol. I, fig. 283.
[iv]Poulsen, Hanne (trans. D. Holmes) 1975. Figureheads and Ornaments on Danish Ships and in Danish Collections. Copenhagen, p.133.
[v]Thomas, P.N., British Figurehead & Ship Carvers, p.42.
Bird on Perch figurehead, Bengtsson Collection, Sweden. Photo by Carol Olsen.