Jenny Lind Ship Figurehead

A History of Jenny Lind

by J. Revell Carr, Director Emeritus, Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut (courtesy Sotheby’s.)

Very rarely, a 19th century figurehead emerges from obscurity and is recognized as the work of art it truly is. It is even more rare that such a figurehead is identified and reconnected to the history of the ship it once symbolized. In the Jenny Lind figurehead, we have such a rare find and the story of her discovery and the efforts that have been lavished on her to bring her out of the mists of the past is fascinating and easily captures the interest of everyone who hears it.

During the waning days of the age of sail in the late 19th and early 20th century, the figureheads that had graced the bows of great ships were often the only items salvaged as ships were broken up on reefs, lee-shores and the ship breakers yard. The carvings had embodied the spirit of the ships, sometimes as allegorical or heroic figures and sometimes as portraits of individuals related to the ships. As a broken ship lay in its final agony, people instinctively recognized the significance of the figures and dragged them ashore rather than see them destroyed with the ships. And yet, once ashore in this era, they were seldom treated with the respect they deserved as works of art. Some did make their way into the collections of the few maritime museums that existed in that time, but many others were treated as curiosities and were used as decorations, indoors and out. In the northern Danish town of Skagen, the local hotel by the turn of the century had amassed a significant collection of figureheads to decorate the hotel dinning room. When the hotel closed the collection vanished. Decades later, deep in the recesses of a storage warehouse, the figures were discovered and they now reside in the Maritime Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden. Other figureheads from famous vessels suffered worse fates. When the clipper DONALD MACKAY ended up a wreck in the Cape Verde Islands, its rescued figurehead of the kilted Scotsman stood outdoors as a deteriorating decoration, withering under the tropic rain and sun. The clipper GREAT ADMIRAL wrecked on the Oregon coast, but its figurehead, a remarkable portrait of Admiral David Farragut, managed to find its way back to the home of the ship’s owner in the state of Maine. Then, however, it too was relegated to the status of lawn ornament. Fortunately, these two and many others were eventually recognized for what they were and what they represented and are displayed in maritime museums. In the middle decades of the 20th century, numerous maritime museums were established around the world as inspired lovers of the sea and sailing ships recognized that evidence of that past era was disappearing. Since then, figureheads have increasingly been acknowledged as works of art and the ultimate symbols of the ships they once represented and are highly sought after and cherished.

The figurehead that is the subject of our current interest, shared a similar fate to those described above and, at a critical period in her life, became not a lawn ornament, but a farmer’s scarecrow. The story of her survival, rescue and resurrection is as fascinating as any contemporary detective thriller and even involves the forensic sciences. But this story of Jenny Lind is also exceptional because of the spell she cast over the man who discovered her. It is safe to say, that no single figurehead discovered in the last fifty years has had such dedication from its owner and benefited from such devotion.

Karl-Eric Svardskog left a teaching career for the uncertain life as an antique dealer near Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. In 1994, only four years into his new profession, a friend who scouted around rural areas ferreting out possible “treasures”, changed Karl-Eric’s life with a simple question, “Do you want to buy a scarecrow.” His response to that question set him on a course that would take him thousands of miles during thirteen years of study, investigation and international celebration of his “scarecrow”. That journey culminates here at Sotheby’s as Karl-Eric sends his Jenny on to the next phase of her legendary life.

Gunter, Karl-Eric’s friend who first saw the “scarecrow’s” hand jutting out of a pile of tools in a Swedish farmer’s barn, had a good eye for antiques and a flair for the dramatic. After Karl-Eric made an offer for the “scarecrow” sight-unseen, Gunter arranged for a spiritual introduction for Karl-Eric and his new acquisition. Gunter moved the figure from the farmer’s barn to his own and created to perfect setting for the first “meeting”. When Karl-Eric entered Gunter’s barn, it was lit with candles and swelled to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem and there, in the middle of the room, lay the shrouded figure. As he drew back the covering, Karl-Eric knew that what he had purchased was no scarecrow, but he had no idea how the carving before him was going to dominate his life for the decade ahead.

First, the curators at the maritime museum in Karlskrona confirmed Karl-Eric’s early suspicion that the carving was indeed a figurehead. The scroll carving at the base would have merged with further carving on a ship’s bow and the slot at the base would allow the figure to fit securely over the stem piece. In the hole that penetrates the figure, it carries the typical evidence of being fastened to a ship. An iron drift pin of perhaps one inch in diameter would be driven through the figure and through the stem behind it, then clench rings would be slipped over the ends of the pin and the pin would be hammered down around the ring to essentially rivet the carving in place. One of the flaws in this method of attachment is that after years at sea, the corrosive salt water seeps in around the drift pin causing it to rust. As it rusted the metal swelled and split the wood, which allowed more water to penetrate, deteriorating the wood and loosening the figure. The Jenny Lind figurehead shows this deterioration, which when added to the fact that scientific paint analysis shows that the figure was painted more than twenty-five times, further reinforces the concept that it spent many years at sea. With this evidence, Karl-Eric began to entertain the fanciful idea that perhaps he could actually identify the carving.

As he began his quest, he came upon images of Jenny Lind, the international singing sensation of the mid-nineteenth century, who was referred to as “The Swedish Nightingale”. As he gathered images, the resemblance of the figurehead to many of them was clear and was remarkably close to the image of Jenny in the opera Robert le Diable. Consultation with a costume expert confirmed that the clothing on the figurehead was correct for the period of Jenny Lind’s fame. Karl-Eric was justifiably excited by this attribution based on the likeness of the figurehead to the numerous images of the singer and the costume confirmation, but then came the challenge of linking the figure with a specific ship. Due to the extraordinary popularity of Jenny Lind, a number of vessels were named in her honor. Some were too small to carry a figurehead and simple bore her name, but there were several that were known to have carried figureheads. From the size of the figurehead and from its configuration, leaning forward at a fairly extreme angle, it was clear that this carving was from a large ship with a raked bow. The ships that fit this description were the queens of the oceans, the speed demons of the sea in the mid-nineteenth century, the clipper ships. The true clippers were a short-lived breed of narrow-hulled, sleek vessels, which were driven by clouds of canvas sails of their towering masts. The raced across the oceans of the world carrying high value cargo that needed to get to their destinations quickly. The origin of the clipper ship design is often attributed to the Americans and certainly the shipyards of New England produced some of the most handsome, fastest and most celebrated of these ships. They were being built at the time Jenny Lind was reaching the height of her fame. Since all the evidence pointed Karl-Eric toward the clippers, he searched for Jenny Lind among them.

It did not take long for the search to focus on the extreme clipper Nightingale, which was built in Eliot, Maine, on the Piscataqua River, the border between Maine and New Hampshire. The builder was Samuel Hanscom, Jr., who envisioned a magnificent clipper that would be built to the highest standards of construction, accommodations and decoration. It was his intent that the ship would carry passengers to England to attend the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was the international exposition primarily celebrating the industrial and technological advancements of the age. During the spring of 1851, while the ship was under construction, Hanscom attended one of Jenny Lind’s concerts during her triumphant American tour that was managed by the showman, P.T. Barnum. Like so many, Hanscom was enthralled by the singer and immediately re-named his clipper, still under construction, Nightingale. Hanscom intended that his Nightingale would remain in England during the exhibition and become a showpiece of American naval architecture, shipbuilding skill and speed under sail, as the yacht America would prove to be. Unfortunately, Hanscom had over reached his resources and, with financial difficulties, the beautiful ship was not launched until after her anticipated date for departure to England. The time and resources for the trip to England slipped away, and the magnificent Nightingale was sold at auction and put into service where her speed could be fully utilized.

The beauty of the ship and its speed attracted admiration from numerous quarters, including the artist James E. Buttersworth who produced a painting of the ship with Castle Garden, the site of Jenny Lind’s first American concert, in the background. Buttersworth’s image was transferred to the lithographer’s stone and reproduced by Currier and Ives. For Karl-Eric, the Buttersworth image and a description of the figurehead published in the Boston Daily Evening Traveller during the early 1850s, caused some serious concern. The reliable description referred to the figurehead’s right arm as being out-stretched and the Buttersworth painting, in which the figurehead is minute, depicts the figure in this way. The problem was that the figurehead in Karl-Eric’s possession had the right arm attached to the chest and the left arm at the side. This arrangement was common in figureheads since outstretched arms of figures that pounded their way through heavy seas were easily broken off. However, since the written description mentioned the out-stretched right arm, this issue needed thorough investigation.

A close examination of the arms of the figurehead began to reveal the answer. The arms differed in the quality of carving and also in the clothing. The right arm had four tiers of ruffles in the sleeve while the left arm had only three. Scientific study revealed another critical difference. Karl-Eric had an analysis done of the wood in the figurehead and that study, and a later confirming study undertaken by Sotheby’s, indicated that the figurehead was carved from Eastern white pine ( pinus strobus ), which only grows in the northeastern part of North America. It was the wood used most often by the carver in New England, who would have carved the figureheads for the American clippers. However, the left arm of the Jenny Lind figurehead was made of Douglas fir, a wood native to the Northwestern United States, 3000 miles from the New England coast. It is clear that the left arm is a replacement and was attached along the side to lessen the vulnerability in high seas.

That still left the question of the right arm. Some carvers actually created figureheads with detachable arms, so that a raised or outstretched arm could be fitted into place as a ship arrived in port and needed to look its best, but could be removed and safely stowed when in violent seas. The figureheads known as “Alexander Hamilton” and “Asia” in the collections of Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut, are configured in this manner, as is, by coincidence, a figurehead in the collection of the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, which has often been attributed as Jenny Lind. However, it is not certain if that was the case with this figurehead. What does seem to be the case is that the vulnerable right forearm was at some point repositioned across the chest and crudely attached with a wooden treenail driven directly through the right hand and into the chest. Had the carver originally positioned the arm across the chest, it would have been carved from the original block of wood as is seen in so many other figureheads. In the contemporary description of the figurehead on Nightingale, a carved and gilded nightingale was reported to be perched on the fingers of the right hand. There is some evidence on the Nightingale figurehead that a dowel could have been present to support the little golden bird. In addition, the paint scheme revealed by the scientific paint analysis matches the description of the Nightingale figurehead, which was painted white with accents of blue and gold, the national colors of Sweden. With these issues addressed, it seemed that the carving that had enchanted Karl-Eric Svardskog in the candlelight of Gunter’s barn was truly the figurehead from the extreme clipper Nightingale. The next challenge was to study the history of the ship and discover her fate.

After the disappointment of missing the opportunity to dazzle people from all over the world at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Nightingale set about her work as a fast clipper and would dazzle people as she sailed all over the world. In the summer of 1851, just as Nightingale was going on the auction block, word was reaching North America of a rich gold strike in Australia. After the frantic search for gold in California, which had begun two years earlier, news of a new gold field incited many Americans to set off for Australia and those who could afford it sought the fastest possible way of getting there to be early in the search. The mission was tailor-made for Nightingale and she departed Boston on October 18, 1851 with the gold seekers traveling in splendor intended for Great Exhibition visitors. After the fast ninety-three day trip to Sydney, Nightingale shifted to the remunerative China trade, where in 1852 she vied with three other American clippers and three British clippers in an effort to make the fastest passage carrying valuable tea from China to England. Since the ships left on different dates over a six-month period it was not a head-to-head competition as each ship encountered different weather conditions. Nightingale did not win but her speed was so broadly acknowledged that no ship accepted the challenge for a $50,000 purse, offered by Nightingale’s owners for a true race between England and China. Throughout the 1850s, Nightingale made numerous fast voyages through the oceans of the world, but in 1860 she was sold in New York, perhaps because, like so many lightly built and over-powered clippers, her decade of stressful fast passages had begun to take its toll on her hull. The trade that Nightingale was about to enter was the most ignominious and abhorrent and began a sad chapter in this great ship’s story.

An unscrupulous group had purchased Nightingale, placed Francis Bowen aboard as captain and sent the ship into the outlawed slave trade. In the spring of 1860, Nightingale, with the tragic cargo of 2,000 human souls, was reported to have slipped through the British and American anti-slavery patrols off the African coast and since she could out-sail any government ship there was no chance to catch her. With most slavers carrying far fewer, the capacity of Nightingale made a cargo of that number yield approximately $1 million. She managed to make several trip before, in April of 1861, officers and men of the U.S. Navy’s USS Saratoga, boarded the Nightingale in Cabinda Bay and caught Capt. Bowen with 960 captive on board with another 1,000 waiting to be forced aboard. The ship was taken as a “prize” and sailed to New York; however, with the help of a sympathetic naval officer from North Carolina, Bowen escaped. The brief, grotesque career of Nightingale as a slaver was over and the ship’s namesake, who contributed to abolitionist causes during her time in America, was no longer troubled by this grim aspect of Nightingale’s career.

Once in New York, Nightingale was purchased by the U.S. government at the prize auction and since the Civil War had recently broken out, the former slaver was put to work supporting military and naval operations in the South. After the war the famous clipper re-entered the merchant sailing fleet and sailed under several American owners until 1876 when she was “sold foreign” to a Norwegian firm.

Her last homeport was Kragero� on the East coast of Norway facing Sweden. But as the final, valiant years of the ageing clipper play out, a major question arises for Karl-Eric. In the spring of 1893 at the venerable age of 42 the Nightingale was abandoned in the North Atlantic while on a passage between Liverpool and Halifax. With the ship lost in the mid-Atlantic, wouldn’t her figurehead have gone down with her? To solve this mystery, the dedicated researcher, Karl-Eric, was going to have to delve more deeply into those final years as she sailed under the Norwegian flag. It did not take long for a logical explanation to materialize.

The place to start the detailed investigation was Kragero� and Karl-Eric was aided by a journalist there, Jimmy a…sen, who spread the word about the interest in Nightingale. He soon learned that, in October of 1884, the ship had been accidentally towed onto a reef near Kragero� and her bow was severely damaged. After being freed from the reef the ship was deliberately run onto a rock to prevent her from sinking. Temporary repairs were then made so the ship could make to short journey to a repair yard on the island of Kirkeholmen near Kragera¸. During the reconstruction of the ship, various modifications were made, including the removal of one of her deckhouses, which still can be found behind the shipyard site on Kirkeholmen. It is logical that, with the bow damaged by the reef and the deliberate grounding, the figurehead would have been removed to facilitate the rebuilding of the stem. By that time the figure had led Nightigale through the oceans of the world for over thirty years and the figurehead was showing the wear and damage from all those years. Where the drift pin had rusted, swelled and cracked the wood, the lower portion of the figure was split to its base. To repair such damage in a way that would make it possible to securely refasten the figurehead to the ship would be expensive and require the skills of a master-carver. Nightingale was an old ship by this time and her owners would have known that her years of service were limited. Her glory days as a showpiece were over and the ship was relegated to simply producing a profit for her owners. There was no incentive to spend the money to restore the figurehead and return it to its place on the ship. It is logical to conclude that when Nightingale returned to sea for her last eight years, she did so without her deckhouse and other elements including the figurehead. This was supported by oral tradition, the story passed to through generations of the Thomassen family, which owned the shipyard and still owns the island on which the deckhouse sits. It is also supported by the fact that the registration of the Nightingale after the repairs lists her with considerably less tonnage, indicating that she was stripped of extraneous elements.

The next question that faced Karl-Eric was, how did the figurehead get from Kragero� to Sweden and who might have taken her there. The record book that documents the enormous Nightingale repair project is still owned by the Thomassens and it indicates that forty workmen labored for five months to reconstruct and modify the ship. Among those workers were a number from Sweden. Once again, logic enters in and, though there is no documentation to prove it, it is logical that, with a tradition of rivalry between Swedes and Norwegians, the Swedish workers would want to take their Swedish Nightingale home rather than leave her languishing in Norway. Again, no documentation exists to document the figurehead’s arrival or its transportation thirty miles inland to the farm field, but since the main rail route from Stockholm in the East to Gothenburg in the West passed by the farm field, it would have been simple to make the move. A ninety-year old living on the farm recalled the story that his grandfather had brought the figurehead to the farm after it had been removed from a ship in Norway, so there is some, albeit overly convenient, confirmation from an elderly man eager to help. The other part of that story was that while effective as a scarecrow during the day, the ghost-like specter of the white-clothed lady rising from the moon-lit farm field frightened too many passing train riders and she was removed and relegated to the barn. With all these bits fitting together, the circumstantial evidence that Karl-Eric’s figurehead was Jenny Lind from the extreme clipper Nightingale seems solid. There is no question that the figure looks like the many images of Jenny Lind, its size and three quarter format coincide with what is known of the Nightingale figurehead, there is evidence that the positioning of the arms has been changed and one has been replaced, and there is a very logical sequence of events that would have the figure removed from the ship and make its way to Sweden.

Not content to rest with the strong case for the figurehead’s identity, Karl-Eric began perhaps the most challenging quest, to identify the carver of the piece. The shipcarvers of the nineteenth century did not sign their work. Despite the fact that newspaper accounts often praised the beauty of their work, the carvers viewed themselves as craftsmen, not artists, who were hired to create a product for their customers. Their work often had stylistic characteristics that would be easily recognized and their reputations were built on the quality of their work as well as the cost and the ability to meet deadlines. For the carvers, it was a business not an art. With so many carvings being anonymous, Karl-Eric was going to face a real challenge. His search produced no records of the order for the figurehead, no mention of the carver in newspapers accounts that described the carvings and no correspondence between the builders and the carver. Once again, Karl-Eric was going to have to piece together bits of logical information to reach a conclusion. With the figure representing, not an allegorical or idealized person, but an extremely famous individual whose likeness was easily recognized by millions of people worldwide, it was critical that a carver with a sound reputation for capturing the likeness of his subject be hired. Also, since the Hanscoms were attempting to make Nightingale the finest clipper possible and were sparing no expense (until the sad end of the construction), they would have sought the best carver in the region. The source for the finest carvings to adorn the New England clippers was Boston and at the time of Nightingale’s construction there were two superb carvers working in Boston. One was the firm of S. W. Gleason and Sons and the other was John W. Mason. Of the two, Mason had the reputation for carving distinct likenesses of the people who would symbolize the ships. In some cases it would be the ship owner or his wife or in other instances it would be a famous personage such as Admiral Farragut or Jenny Lind. John Mason was known to have worked from photographs and printed images of his subject to create his lifelike depictions and there were ample images of Jenny Lind from which the carver could work. The great frustration is that no confirmed carvings from John W. Mason exist so that direct comparisons of carving details cannot be made, but a treasure trove of Mason’s renderings of some of his proposed carvings has been preserved at the Peabody-Essex Museum.

The drawings show a number of stylistic similarities between Mason’s projects and the Nightingale figurehead. The profile renderings of two proposed figureheads identified as “Belle of the West” and “Woman with Crown” show remarkable similarities when compared with the profile of the Jenny Lind figure. Unless hard evidence is discovered directly linking Mason to the Nightingale figurehead, it can only be postulated that Mason is the carver, but it is probable.

There can be little doubt that the figurehead revealed to Karl-Eric Svardkog in Gunter’s barn over a decade ago cast a spell on its new owner. She led him on an adventuresome voyage of discovery, which he enthusiastically undertook. As a result, an exceptional example of the ship-carvers art has emerged from obscurity, been given an identity and been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, just as Jenny Lind was 150 years ago. The figurehead has been formally unveiled by the King of Sweden, been given honored positions at celebratory concerts in Sweden and the United States and has been exhibited in museums in Sweden and America. In the nineteenth century Jenny Lind had champions, P. T. Barnum who brought her to America was one, Samuel Hanscom who was so smitten he changed the name of a clipper ship for her was another and, of course, her husband, pianist Otto Goldschmidt, was one. At the beginning of twenty-first century, she has a new champion in her devoted Karl-Eric Svardskog who has brought her, in the form of this figurehead, back from the dark recesses of obscurity and onto the concert stage and into museums where she can once again dazzle her audiences. With the sale of this figure, Karl-Eric lets go of his cherished figurehead, but sends her on to her new life endowed with a rich history he labored retrieve.

About This Site

Internet Antique Gazette is brought to you by Prices4Antiques.