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5 minutes with... An early 19th-century ship’s figurehead

John Hays, Deputy Chairman Christie’s Americas, explains why this rare and beautiful ship’s figurehead carved by William Rush — considered the ‘Father of American sculpture’ — tells a unique story both of the artist and of his time

Carved from a single block of white pine that has been burnished and toned by the sea, this ship’s figurehead is notable for the expressive eyes and staccato tendrils of hair that signal the work of William Rush. ‘You can see she is weathered; has lost her arms, her nose, her foot, but you can see what an incredible journey she has been on,’ marvels specialist John Hays. 

‘When you look at her it’s not hard to close your eyes and think about the seas she has travelled and the journeys she has guided her ship through. It’s an extraordinary survival.

‘They say William Rush was the first major American sculptor,’ Hays continues. ‘Only in America could you be trained at the knee of your father, a ship’s carpenter (whose name, by the way, was Joseph…) and end up being the country’s founder of academic sculpting.’


A carved pine ships figurehead of a young woman, attributed to William Rush (1756-1833), Philadelphia, c. 1809. 46½ in high, 15 in wide, 17½ in deep. Estimate $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Maritime, Folk and Outsider Art on 20 September 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A carved pine ship's figurehead of a young woman, attributed to William Rush (1756-1833), Philadelphia, c. 1809. 46½ in high, 15 in wide, 17½ in deep. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Maritime, Folk and Outsider Art on 20 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Rush was born in 1756 in Philadelphia — at the time the most populous city in the burgeoning United States. Booming nautical trade, and the initiation in 1776 of a national navy in the city’s dockyards, meant that Rush was perfectly placed to profit from the skills he had honed as a teenaged apprentice to the English immigrant carver, Edward Cutbush.

Soon surpassing his master in skill, and after serving as an officer in the militia during the American Revolution, Rush opened his own business. The US Navy commissioned him to carve figureheads for at least four of its six original frigates — all of which are now lost. 

‘These figureheads come from a long tradition of carving. The iconography varied depending upon which figure you chose for your ship,’ explains Hays. ‘Carved in a Greek and Roman style, they would imbue the ship with qualities you hoped it would absorb, perhaps noble or romantic. You could pick, for example, Hercules, renowned for his strength, or a goddess such as Venus, who represented victory.’

Rush initially adopted a deep carving style which particularly suited ships’ figureheads, allowing detail to be seen from afar. ‘You can see how the swags of drapery cling to the body in a wet manner — and he uses his wood beautifully. The concentric rings of the wood from where the branches moved out actually follow the line and body of the figure better than any attempt I’ve ever seen. He really carves this figure with the wood’s grain in mind,’ says Hays admiringly.

‘The concentric rings of the wood from where the branches moved out actually follow the line and body of the figure better than any attempt I’ve ever seen,’ says Hays
‘The concentric rings of the wood from where the branches moved out actually follow the line and body of the figure better than any attempt I’ve ever seen,’ says Hays

‘Marine carving falls into a category of its own that moves between folk art and fine art,’ he continues, ‘but if you look at Rush’s command of drapery and detailing, it’s so exquisite that you can see the beginnings of his path towards the latter.’

Rush soon switched to carving in marble, realising commissions to produce neoclassical figures for local waterworks, bridges and theatres. He was one of the first sculptors to create outdoor public works in the United States. His deep and dramatic style of carving wooden figureheads, however, would always permeate these later figures hewn from marble.

‘Rush emerged in Philadelphia at a time when Washington and Franklin were there. He was at the forefront of the beginnings of the experiment that was America’

‘Rush’s figures place you right in the crucible of America as folk artists were moving into the fine-art tradition,’ Hays explains. ‘He emerged in Philadelphia at a time when George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were there. He helped to apply their Greek and Roman ideals in both politics and art to the country. He was at the forefront of the beginnings of the experiment that was America.’

Acclaim for Rush grew, and in 1805 he was among a group of artists and business leaders, including the painter Charles Willson Peale, who founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Five years later, in 1810, he created what may have been his masterpiece, a life-size crucifixion scene for St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia. The church and the sculpture were destroyed by fire in 1844, but Rush’s status as the father of American sculpture was nevertheless assured.

Figures carved by William Rush don’t come up very often. ‘For any institution that doesn’t have an example of Rush’s work, this is a great opportunity, because it tells a truly unique story of both the artist and his time,’ reckons the specialist. ‘I’ve been at Christie’s for 34 years now and I remember stumbling across one or two of these Rush figureheads in the Eighties, but I haven’t seen one since.’