27. Jenny Lind and the Clipper Nightingale Figurehead

by Karl-Eric Svärdskog

Jenny Lind, Nightingale, Portsmouth Marine Society

In the 1800s the gifted Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind, caught the attention of the world with her crystal voice, dramatic ability and charitable nature. PT Barnum, the gifted American entrepreneur and public relations guru, hearing of her European success, brought Jenny to America for a tour which catapaulted her into megastar status. All who heard her sing were to remark upon the experience as deeply moving. She seemed to be “lit from within by a holy fire.”

Her beauty, youth, and kindness caused inspiration for artists in all mediums of the day. Clipper ships of this era were often adorned with beautifully carved figureheads believed to bring luck to the vessel. Jenny Lind’s name was lent to several ships of the time period, one of note was the extreme clipper Nightingale, built by the Hanscoms in Eliot, Maine in 1851, and launched June 16th of that year. The owners of the ship had planned to call it the Sarah Cowles, but upon hearing Jenny sing they changed the name in accordance with Jenny’s nickname, The Swedish Nightingale. They commissioned a prominent carver in Boston, possibly John Mason, to carve a figurehead in Jenny’s likeness.

The Clipper Nightingale was the most luxurious ship built in its time, designed to accommodate a very wealthy class of passengers, no expense was spared. Clippers often were refit, with pieces deemed unnecessary taken off. The Nightingale sustained bow damage in the 1870’s and put into port in Norway. At this point a workman’s log details the stripping of the Nightingale. The figurehead was discovered in 1994 in a barn in Norway where it had been for over 100 years, after being used as a scarecrow on the farm. The deckhouse of the Nightingale still exists in a seaport in Norway and following a railway line one ends up passing the farm where the figurehead had been in hiding for so long.

This volume tells the many faceted story of the discovery of this figurehead, the author’s six year search for its origin, the history of the Clipper Nightingale, the life of carver John Mason, and the life of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale.

“I am very impressed by the figurehead and feel that the case you make for it being from the clipper ship Nightingale is very strong….I completely concur with your comments about the figure itself…The engraved picture of Jenny Lind which you sent bears a remarkable likeness to the figurehead, which further strengthens your position….I cannot imagine that there is documentation…that would be stronger than the documentation you have for attributing the figure to the Nightingale.”

J. Revell Carr/ Director, Mystic Seaport Museum

7×10 Harcover, 260 pages, 124 illustrations, ISBN 0-914339 $35.00

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