With thirteen massive wooden sculptures, often several metres high and weighing several tonnes, the Naval Museum has one of the world's most unique collections of figureheads.

The practice of building bow figures and figurheads is perhaps as old as naval architecture itself. Even ancient ships, from different parts of the world, bore figures, representing horrifying beasts, which were designed to scare away dangerous sea creatures.

At one time, the ancient Egyptians carved animal heads on the bows of their boats in the belief that they would be a good omen for the journey and would appease the gods. The Viking ships' dragon heads were intended to cause fear in the enemy but were also intended to keep evil spirits away.

Gustav III's great investment

The stately Figurehead Hall of the Naval Museum in Karlskorna displays an unusual collection of figureheads that adorned the bows of Swedish warships in the 1700s and 1800s.

In 1780, Gustav III drew up a new construction plan for the Swedish navy. Its powerful modern line ships and ten frigates were built in just three years, as Sweden carried out a thorough refurbishment. Also built during this period were small sailing ships, brigantines and cutters.

The naval dockyard in Karlskrona was located at the centre. In 1780 the famous shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik af Chapman was handpicked from the Djurgård dockyard in Stockholm to build the king's new ship. Another man made the same move from the capital city to Karlskrona: the admiralty's sculptor Johan Tornström.

Continuous process

Most of the figureheads in the Figurehead Hall were carved by Tornström alone. Raised as a farmer's son in Västmanland, Tornström started carving small wooden figures as a child. Later, as an adult, he created figureheads sometimes weighing several tonnes.

In the 1760s and 1770s, Tornström received a solid education, including serving as an apprentice of the highly esteemed sculptor Adrien Masreliez and later of his son Jean-Baptiste Masreliez. During his time in the capital city, Tornström worked extensively on the adornment of the Stockholm Castle.

However, in the begining of the 1780's, Johan Törnström's career as admiralty sculptor began to take off. When Gustav III made his major investment in the fleet, orders flooded into Tornström's newly built sculpture workshop in the Karlskrona naval dockyard. Figureheads for a new warship, however, were not mere rush jobs. First, the sketch of a figurehead had to be approved by the dockyard manager, Fredrik Henrik af Chapman. Once that was done, Tornström made a small wax figure that was later sent to Stockholm to be reviewed by the Admiralty College – the authority in charge of the Swedish fleet – or sometimes by the king himself. Once the model received a green light there, sometimes after receiving various new opinions, Tornström drew a full-scale picture of the prospective figurehead that was put up on the wall in the workshop. Apprentices and hourly workers built the massive and very heavy wooden block, and from it the artwork then emerged. It took a few years to complete a single figurehead.

Russia=Medusa

During the reign of Gustav III, the largest warships – the line ships – were named after different noble virtues, such as Tapperheten (valour) and Dristigheten (audacity). They always had male figureheads. The frigates were given female names, such as Minerva and Fröja, and always had female figureheads.

In the 1700s and early 1800s, the figureheads on a warship would explain the ship's name but also often had a symbolic significance. The line ship Försiktigheten (caution) was involved in several naval battles in the war between Sweden and Russia in 1788–1790. In the 1700s the word försiktighet also connoted wisdom and foresight, and it is in this light that we should see the ship name. Today, the mighty figurehead of Försiktigheten sits in the Figurehead Hall of the Naval Museum. It represents Perseus, the hero of Greek mythology, who with his wisdom and strategic thinking saved the princess Andromeda. His figurehead bears a helmet that could make him invisible and holds, in one hand, the severed head of the dreaded monster Medusa. The idea behind the work is that Perseus symbolises Gustav III, the princess who was saved symbolises Finland, and Medusa symbolises Russia.

The figureheads disappear

For a great part of his professional career Johan Tornström had a hectic work schedule; nevertheless, with time figurehead art would pass into history.

When steel ships replaced wooden ships, it meant that the use of figureheads would end; eventually they were replaced by coats of arms on naval ships. The figureheads on warships began to be perceived as obsolete. Moreover, it was expensive to manufacture them and other ship adornment, and when the military was under pressure to save money, these were expenses that could be easily foregone.

Thankfully, however, several of admiralty sculptor Johan Törnströms's mighty works are preserved in the Naval Museum – major works of art from a bygone era.

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