Wight Life

Revival of an Ancient Art

by K M Duffield

Picture of Jack Whitehead

WHEN JACK WHITEHEAD sorts through his mail aboard the 95-year-old converted schooner 'Veronica', he could be confronted with letters from anywhere in the world, seeking his expertise as a wood carver. Such a rare talent might have remained dormant, had it not been for a fateful accident in World War II. In 1944, while serving with the RAF, he had the unfortunate experience of being struck on the arm by the backfiring propellor of an aircraft. The muscles in his arm, wrist and hand were torn and therapists encouraged him to take up a hobby involving the use of his right hand to strengthen the damaged muscles. He chose wood carving, something that had always held his interest. He had no idea at the time what a change it would ultimately make to his life.

It was during his spell as a beach manager that he started to whittle away at pieces of wood, turning them into simple shapes and objects. When he became more proficient, he took to carving puppets. This led him to accompany and make the puppets for the Lanchester Marionettes. He stayed with them for two years before joining the Hogarth Puppet Theatre, which travelled a great deal, and was a popular act in childrens' television programmes. He and his wife Doris not only made the puppets, they also produced their own show. Television opened up new realms for him. He made puppets and props for both television and commercial films and established himself as a special-effects man in the film industry.

His hobby had become a profession, but he felt that his creative aspirations were not being fulfilled. He and his wife decided to leave the world of entertainment and withdraw to their houseboat moored in Wootton Creek. Here he found a suitable workshop, and more important still, a partner, Norman Gaches who also lives in Wootton and has a natural gift for wood-carving. The partnership has proved a successful one. They share the larger commissions and work independently on other projects.

Mr Whitehead's first commissions were signs, church interiors and furniture. He carved the 25 ft totem pole at the Little Canada Holiday Village in Wootton one summer, from a sweet chestnut tree, using plywood for the wings. The life-size horse on the roof of the Ponderosa carved from polystyrene covered with fibreglass is also his work. When fire swept through an ancient church in Binstead, Mr Whitehead was asked to renew the damaged carving in the roof and Mr Gaches carved replicas of the ancient roof bosses. In the winter of 1971, the 'Daily Express' gave away ten sets of the famous Giles cartoon family, all specially moulded from Mr Whitehead's remarkable carved wooden likenesses. The moulds were then destroyed, so the fortunate winners have collectors' pieces. Jack Whitehead is better known for reviving the ancient art of carving figureheads and other nautical objects, although many people are unaware of the fact that he is the only known professional figurehead carver in the world. It all started eight years ago when he created a mermaid for the bow of a ship owned by a friend who set sail for New Zealand. The mermaid took the eye of a photographer who submitted the picture to a yachting magazine. It was accepted, and when the magazine was published, Mr Whitehead was overwhelmed with enquiries. Since then, he has made figureheads for many vessels.

The most popular figureheads are mermaids, dolphins and eagles, including one eagle which measured 8ft bins. For a converted Danish trading schooner, the Golden Cachelot, (which is now sailing regularly with parties of scientists to the Galapagos Islands), he carved a nine foot sperm whale. Fairly recently he made a figurehead and stern carving for the 'Cruz Del Sur', a three-masted schooner belonging to the owner of the 'Ships of the Seas Museum' in Savannah, Georgia. He has carried out restoration work on the figurehead for the clipper ship 'Gutty Sark', the permanent museum at Greenwich, and renovated 50 figureheads taken from ships wrecked on the rocks of the Scilly Isles. The lions on the bows of the sail-training ships 'Sir Winston Churchill' and the 'Malcolm Miller' are his work. For the 80ft brig 'Royalist', believed to be the first square-rigger built for the British flag since 1906, he carved two figures of sea-cadets holding their own coat of arms, and Mr Gaches provided the two large dolphins to hold the name plate at the stern. They undertook the bow and stern carving for the trimaran 'Greenlady', (the largest trimaran ever built), which was completed by Souters of Cowes. Some of the most outstanding sculpting Whitehead and Gaches have done, was for the Hudson's Bay Company on the 53ft ketch 'Nonsuch'. In 1668, the original 'Nonsuch' opened up Canada's north-west territories for the company called Adventurers of England, (the predecessors of the Hudson's Bay Company).

To celebrate the 300th anniversary of this discovery, Mr Whitehead and Mr Gaches were invited to create figureheads, including 24 nudes, and to undertake a considerable amount of carving on the outside of the ship as well as in the cabin! It took ten months and like other projects, it involved spending time working aboard the ship. Jack Whitehead spent 10 weeks on the 'Nonsuch' and his art has taken him all over the British Isles, to Canada and to America.

January 1971 saw him at the Boat Show on the 4th floor of the New) York Coliseum. He had his own booth, along with the other group of companies sponsored by the British boating industry. Here, he captivated his audience by chipping away at a block of pine and sculpting it into an Indian figurehead for the prow of a ship. Several people dropped by daily to study his progress and so inundated him with questions, that he had difficulty in completing his task before the Boat Show closed. It was on this trip that he presented Mayor John Lindsay with a carved likeness of himself. Using photographs for references it was carved from limewood grown on the Isle of Wight, which has a special significance for the Mayor, as his ancestors originated in Shalfleet.

The most recent project in hand is the carvings for the replica of Drake's 'Golden Hind', (built by J Hinks & Sons who built the 'Nonsuch'). The 'Golden Hind' is a three-masted square rigger of 104 ft overall, and bears the carvings by Jack Whitehead on the high poop, and those of Mr Gaches at the stern. Clifford Mathews of Fishbourne has joined forces with them and is providing the cannon and Elizabethan furniture for the cabin. The 'Golden Hind' will be handed over in May 1973 for trials on the South Coast, including Cowes, and at Tower Pier, London, before being sailed to San Francisco where she will be exhibited to the public.

On May 8th, Mr Whitehead left for Kiel in Germany, where he carved for the exhibition connected with the sailing side of the Olympic Games called 'Man and the Sea'. He and Mr Gaches moved their workshop to Germany and each spent an alternating period of three weeks in Kiel until the exhibition ended on 24th September. They were renovating old historical figureheads and producing new ones. One female is 8½ft high for the vessel 'Falls of Clyde' whose 323ft hull was discovered and saved from being broken up after being used for oil storage in Alaska. Her original runs were between San Francisco and Honolulu, taking Americans to settle in the Hawaiian Islands.

Picture of Jack Whitehead

Photo: Daily Telegraph. Mr Whitehead working on the figurehead for the replica of the 'Golden Hind'

Tools, naturally, play an important part in this rare craft. Jack Whitehead's first kit was stolen on King's Cross Station. Since then, he has gathered together some 250 tools including chisels, gouges, mallets, saws and adzes. All are traditional tools used by the original figurehead carvers, some of them 80 to 100 years old.

When commissions are received, preliminary sketches are made, followed by plasticine models. This enables the buyer to judge whether or not his ideas have been expressed to his liking. Finally, discussions are held with the customer before a decision is reached on the ultimate form. For figureheads, yellow pine, yellow cedar, elm and oak are used. They are lasting and resist the severe conditions at sea. The constructions are laminated from 4 inch thick sections of wood. After carving, the wood is treated by soaking it in cuprinol for 3 or 4 days. A priming coat is put on, then the final painting and gliding is done, expertly, by Doris Whitehead. When Jack Whitehead and Mr Gaches are on the Island, they work an eight to ten hour day, six or seven days a week. Occasionally, if it is an especially nice day, Mr Whitehead sails in one of his dinghies or his converted Star boat, to which he has added a cabin.

Unfortunately, for us, as all of Mr Whitehead's and Mr Gache's work is commissioned, it is sent away as soon as it is finished, and a large percentage of it is sailing in and out of ports all over the world.