John French Whitehead, woodcarver and puppeteer: born St Ives, Huntingdonshire 18 March 1913; married 1939 Doris Marriott (died 1995; two sons); died Ryde, Isle of Wight 22 February 2002.
Jack Whitehead's woodcarving career began by accident. When, in 1944, he was working as an aircraft rigger during the Second World War, he almost lost his right hand. Doctors suggested that he would need extensive physiotherapy to build up the muscles, and carving was found to be the ideal solution. Woodhead discovered a natural talent for it. Over the course of the next half-century he developed and refined the almost lost art of traditional ship carving and, with his colleague Norman Gaches, was one of the first modern-day British carvers to re-establish the carving of ship's figureheads.
He was born in 1913, and brought up in Huntingdon, where his father was the station-master. His first job was on the railways, as an apprentice signalman at King's Cross Station in London, but he moved to the Tabulating Machine Company in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, and, when war broke out in 1939, was working as an air-frame fitter at Aston Down, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. This was a reserved occupation, in which he remained for the duration of the war, although he said what he had really wanted was to join the air-sea rescue service.
After the war he joined the Lanchester Marionettes as a full-time puppet carver and puppeteer, and then the Hogarth Puppet Theatre, a travelling road show. This work brought him into the early days of children's television at the BBC, creating not only the puppets but also scenery and sets. Film work in the special-effects industry followed, for projects such as the 1958-60 television series The Invisible Man.
In 1953 Whitehead and his family moved to the Isle of Wight to live on the houseboat Veronica in Wootton Creek, near Cowes. The boat served as workshop, showroom and home. Whitehead became a full-time woodcarver, specialising in ship's figureheads. One of his first commissions was a 7ft-tall mermaid carved in Canadian cedar for local clients sailing to New Zealand. Photographs of it were published in Yachts and Yachting and brought his name to the attention of sailors all over the world, generating more than 20 commissions.
In 1952 the Cutty Sark Preservation Society was established to preserve the 1860s tea-clipper for the nation, and a year later it was given the Sydney Cumbers collection of more than 100 original ship's figureheads, to be placed on display in the lower hold. Many were in need of conservation and restoration and in the 1960s Whitehead was commissioned to restore two or three carvings a year until the full collection could be shown. He had already been successful with the restoration of the vessel's original figurehead, found in a dismembered state and now back on display on the 'tween deck near the entrance. His association with the Cutty Sark lasted to the end of his life.
In 1970 as part of the Hudson's Bay Company 300th anniversary celebrations it was decided to build, in Appledore, Devon, a full-size replica of the company's first ship, Nonsuch, to put on exhibition in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Whitehead and his partner in the project, Norman Gaches, carved the full decorative scheme in 10 months.
Later commissions for figureheads included such vessels as the Malcolm Miller, Winston Churchill, Royalist, Captain Scott and the Falls of Clyde. Originally built in Scotland in 1878, the Falls of Clyde was under a full restoration project in Honolulu for the Bishop Museum when in 1974 Whitehead was given the job of replacing the original carving. A massive 8ft high, it weighed over a ton and a half. Ever the perfectionist, Whitehead flew out to supervise the fitting of the "White Lady", possibly the first time a carving of this size had been fitted on a vessel in over 100 years.
Surrounded by family and friends, Jack Whitehead would be generous with advice and help to all who found their way to Veronica high on Wootton Creek. Looking in his workshop with a jumble of historic carvings under restoration and new commissions in progress was like going back a hundred years to the great days of ship carving, when every port and harbour had its share of carvers' workshops. His tools were many of them antique: but, when he used them, they became almost an extension to his arms, one observer remarking, "Jack had the unique ability to make the chisels dance across the surface of the timber, leaving small piles of chippings in their wake."
One of the last Whitehead and Gaches projects was perhaps one of the most important carving commissions undertaken on a British vessel. HMS Warrior was built in 1860 at the Thames Iron Shipbuilding Company in Blackwall, London, the original figurehead having being carved by James Hellyer and Sons of London. By the late 1980s she was under restoration in West Hartlepool, on behalf of the British Maritime Trust and in need of a new figurehead, the original having been destroyed as late as the 1960s.
Armed with a set of historic photographs and a three-ton block of Canadian yellow pine, Whitehead and Gaches were in 1983 about three-quarters of the way through the 14ft commission when they featured at the Earls Court International Boat Show – a spectacular sight dominating the Maritime Trust's stand, seen by thousands of sightseers.
Today this carving looks out over Portsmouth Harbour, a fitting epitaph in wood to a gifted craftsman.
Richard HunterReuse content