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Tuesday 5 February 2013

White Greyhound of Richmond vs Talbot- which dog will the new carved Matthew figurehead be?

This post seems very appropriate, when king Richard the Third's bones have just been discovered.

His conqueror and successor, Henry the Seventh, granted John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto to give him his real name) permission to sail in search of 'all parts of the eastern, western and northern sea' to look for new lands. Cabot sailed from Bristol in 1497 and eventually landed in what is now either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, so becoming the first European ship's captain to set foot on what became the North American mainland since the Vikings (or possibly St Brendan).

I've been having a very interesting discussion with Royston Griffey, the chairman of the trustees for the 'Matthew' about what the subject of the new figurehead for the Matthew should be. Royston particularly likes the White Greyhound of Richmond, the badge of Henry VII.


My research has led me to believe that a Talbot is a better choice. Talbots were a now-extinct breed of hunting dog which were very popular in medieval times. The original figurehead on the replica 'Matthew' was a Talbot head carved by Paul Hatch but this was lost a few years ago in a collision at sea. The picture below is of a Talbot and comes from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.


I sent a resume of my research to Royston and thought it might be good to post a slightly edited version of it here, so that anyone interested in the Matthew project, Bristol, Cabot, medieval ships figureheads or indeed anyone else can have a look. See what you think and if you have any thoughts, why not comment? I'd be very interested to hear any other contributions...

The 'Matthew' Figurehead project

Timbers already put aside for use on the project

Lawson Cypress, one of the trees cut down during the landscaping work at Ashton Court. The felling was quite controversial and so a lot of Bristolian people know about this tree. It's nice to be able to use it for a good cause. The timber is durable outdoors, not too heavy and resistant to woodworm attack.
The blocks will be fixed together to make the final complete block for carving, but will be roughly carved separately first to make them easier to handle. One block has already had the profile of the Matthew's bow cut into it, so that it will fit snugly. Each block is a metre long.

Greenheart from the old North Junction lock gates, which were recently replaced. A friend called Jim Sharples gave me it when he built the bench currently outside Mshed from the gates. I would fix this hard, dark wood into the figurehead as the nose and eyes of the dog.

An offcut piece of mast from the SS Great Britain, when the masts were replaced in the 1970s refit. The timber is, I believe, Douglas fir. The rest of the chunk is now a bench at St Werburghs City Farm, where I work part-time. I will cut sections of this and fit them into the block to be carved as a link to the Great Britain, another important part of Bristol's maritime heritage.

The Design Research

When carefully researching the subject over several days to come up with ideas for the figurehead design, I too was at first tempted to carve the White Greyhound of Richmond- it is a very attractive subject for a carver after all. However, I quickly realised that this would be the wrong choice for several reasons.
I'd like to write a bit about it (there's quite a lot more in the file!) because I know how important the Matthew is to you and feel sure that an enthusiastic historian such as yourself (Royston)would also be interested in some of the things that I've found out. Please feel free to comment and I'd be very interested to hear if you know of good evidence to disprove any of these points:

  1. The 'Matthew' was almost certainly not a ship of the line, and so would not have carried a royal figurehead normally. As you pointed out Royston, it was probably bought or hired. It seems highly unlikely that such an elaborate (and expensive) figurehead would be made and bolted onto a ship that was going on such a potentially perilous voyage with a good chance of not returning. It's also unlikely that an expensive ship of the line would be sent on such a mission (which would also perhaps draw unwelcome attention from the Spanish and Portuguese).
  1. The actual design of the White Greyhound of Richmond is far more elaborate than was usual for ships figureheads of the time. No pictures from that period show anything nearly as complex as this. In Carr Laughton's Old Ship figureheads and sterns he says 'such applied ornament as there was before the 16th century was almost certainly extremely simple'. He does point out that there are 'about 1400 very occasional mentions of 'personages', which personages appear usually to have been saints, and of the royal leopards or badges similarly carved' but then goes on to point out that it was far more usual for such badges to be painted on the ship rather than carved as a figurehead. The National Maritime Museum confirms this on their website. I've shown some other examples from my research below. The top one is the figurehead on the 'coca de Mataro', a model of a carvel-built ship (probably a votive offering) from the 15th century, now in a museum in Rotterdam. It's believed to have been made by a shipwright and to be an accurate representation. No figureheads seem to sit below the bow, but obviously that is where one would have to sit on the replica Matthew.

Detail from image copyright Prins Hendrick museum, Rotterdam

This wolf figurehead is from a picture of a carrack from 1532 by Holbein, shown in Ships Figureheads by M. Stammers:

  1. I have spoken to my friends who have crewed many times on the 'Matthew' (Louise, Breamie, Darren, Tom). From talking with them, it became clear that the figurehead takes quite a buffeting in high seas. The White Greyhound is a complex and graceful design, but this is why it would be highly likely to get damaged at sea, particularly the muzzle and legs. One way to strengthen the figurehead might be to drop it's head down onto the neck, but then a dog which looks like it has a broken neck is probably not ideal either. The figurehead needs to have a sturdier design.

One important reason for me offering my services was to make the figurehead initially was as a tribute to Breamie (Steven Kelly), who crewed on the Matthew many times and even helped to save it once, when the whipstaff broke in a heavy sea. As I'm sure you know, Breamie died suddenly and unexpectedly not long ago and putting his initials somewhere unobtrusive, so he can sail with the ship he loved, seems like a fitting memorial. I feel that the Talbot was far more his style than the royal greyhound. Not a historical fact of course, but an important one to me and the people who crewed with him.

  1. The grant from king Henry VII gives right to sail 'under our banners and ensignes' but no mention of carved figureheads. I'd say that this could be a clue as to the Matthew itself not being a royal ship and so not having a royal motif as it's figurehead.
  1. I'm concerned that covering the Matthew with royal insignia inappropriate to ships from that period of history risks making it look like Earnest Board's delightfully romantic Victorian painting of Cabot's departure from 1906 . Nothing wrong in that, I love Boards colourful image, but historians seem unanimous in saying that it is “way too romantic' (Byrne and Gurr The Bristol Story).

  2. I like the idea of the Talbot's hunting dog senses bringing the ship safely back to port. After all, medieval sailors seem to have been quite a superstitious bunch – maybe they would really have believed that it would help! 'Such was the reputation of the Talbot that 15th and 16th century seafarers believed it could track anything, anywhere and a Talbot figurehead could track it's way across any sea or ocean, finding the best passage to keep the ship and crew safe” 
     (Talbotania Feb 99)
  1. The Talbot Research society's 'Talbotania' dated Feb 1999 has a whole section about the Talbot as a figurehead on the Matthew. They point out that 'the original Matthew probably didn't have a figurehead when she was built but it is quite probable that one was made and fitted as a good luck symbol before the ship set out on her voyage across the Atlantic'. It appears that in the 15th century, figureheads would often be carved by the ship's carpenters. Professional figurehead carvers (and the more complicated designs that they carved) don't seem to come along until later, around the sixteenth century when figureheads started to become more common. A ship's carpenter would be using his tools (axes, saws and simple gouges etc., not specialist carving tools) and so would produce something a lot simpler than the White Greyhound of Richmond design which you sent me, as contemporary pictorial records seem to show.
  1. Also in the same article is this paragraph, which particularly caught my eye:
'On Millerd's pictorial plan of Bristol published in 1673 there is depicted eleven Talbot hounds swimming in the River Avon at Redcliff Back. Just to the east from here, between Redcliff Street and Saint Thomas Street was Hounden Lane where the Talbot hounds depicted on Millerd's map were kennelled. Many of these hounds were trained in the Avon at Redcliff for the purpose of rescuing people who had fallen into the river, much the same as Newfoundland dogs are trained today.'

I'm assuming that dogs had been trained to do the same job for a while in Bristol, given that the harbour was also an open sewer in the 15th century and that dogs are the most likely animals to do this kind of work. In a more fanciful mood, I'd like to think that such Hounds may have seen the original Matthew (or even saved some of it's crew!)

References to Talbots as a breed don't seem to begin until the 16th century, but then it has also been identified as coming to Britain with the Normans (perhaps known as the St Hubert hound). Being that talbots and greyhounds seem to have been the only breeds used in heraldry and that greyhounds are certainly not built for swimming and then rescuing people, a talbot looks like the best representation available of these rescue dogs (Wikipedia 12/2011)

Using a hound that could well have rescued Bristolians in trouble and been part of harbour life, rather than the badge of a monarch who gave Cabot some expenses and a warrant, but rarely even visited the city (although he did visit St Annes well in Brislington a couple of times), seems to me to be more appropriate on a figurehead ship for the city of Bristol.

Finally, here is the clay maquette for the figurehead which I have produced:

The feet would have sturdy supports hidden on the inside of the design to stop them breaking.


Unfortunately, this post has a sad footnote. This project never had the chance to be finished. The ship now has a nicely carved but, in my opinion, historically inaccurate greyhound on the front of it.


  1. The heraldic Talbot dog is one of recurrent emblems of the stately home, Alton Towers, and so was linked to the Earls of Shrewsbury, and their Catholic origins. You can see these dogs, sitting up to bear staffs and standards, perched on turrets, peering down on visitors. Today, the name Talbot is generally just associated with motor company of that name, founded by the last earl and linked to the downfall of the Alton Towers family home. Today's theme park has a rich background that I hadn't been aware of until visiting last year during my trip to the Midlands.

  2. Sorry, I seem to have missed out a few 'the's in my comment!

  3. It's interesting to hear about the connections, I shall be researching this further! Thanks for passing it on. As for missing a few 'the's, after a trip to Alton Towers it is certainly forgivable. A trip on a couple of their rollercoasters might shake anyone's typing fingers for a while I'm sure!