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Maritime, Ship Cathead, Carved Wood, Folk Art, Antique, 19th Century

Lion (Big Cat) Ship Cathead Cap
English or American: 19th Century
Carved wood with applied dark stain
17.5 x 17 x 12.5 inches
Provenance: Collection of Allan Stone

Large carved wooden plaque of a head of one of the big wild cats. The dramatic deep relief depicts the animal with a fierce expression — mouth open to reveal a long tongue and sharp fangs. The face is stylized; the species of big cat is not explicit and could represent a lioness, tiger, jaguar or panther, etc. The plaque has a flat back and there is a screw eye attached to the back for hanging. This was most likely used as a cap end carving for a so-called “cathead,” part of a sailing ship used to support and carry the anchor. Alternatively, it might have been made by the artist as a sculpture in the form of a cathead carving, or from other inspiration.

Product description continues below.


Lion and tiger head plaques in their architectural and decorative arts forms are often referred to as masks, though they are not hollow or worn as part of a costume. Animal form masks had a wide variety of uses in classical design from building exterior and interiors, to furniture, ceramics, etc. Folk art examples were frequently used as carved decoration for the ends of catheads on the bows of ships or for a circus or as a carnival decoration (for example, on a carousel).

The offered example is most likely a maritime ship cathead carving in style, execution, size, and form, based on documented ones. The parts of a sailing ship called catheads are the large wooden beams on either side of the bow angled forward at roughly 45 degrees that support the ship’s anchor when raising, lowering, or carrying it. The catheads are strong enough to support the massive weight of the anchor and hold it away from the side of the ship. The projecting end of the beam was commonly decorated with an applied wooden carving of the face of a lion or cat, or so carved from the solid beam. The origin of the term “cathead” is unknown, although it appeared in dictionaries as early as the 17th century. Moreover, it is not known whether the practice of decorating catheads with carvings of cats’ heads came about as a result of the term cathead, or vice versa.

This cathead carving could be English or American. The iconography of lions as used on ships in England was detailed by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England: “The lion had obvious traits that made it especially suitable for Royal Navy warships: not only was it a fierce predator, but it was also a national symbol and formed part of the monarch’s coat of arms.” In the US, the renowned New England wood carver, John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914), best known for his large eagle plaques, also made cathead carvings: “Previously unknown creations recently discovered reveal that from catheads and billetheads to stern boards and figureheads, no facet of a warship’s exterior that could accommodate decorative woodcarving was beyond the reach of Bellamy’s hand.” (James A. Craig).

This cathead carving came from the estate of Allan Stone (1932-2006), a major modern art dealer during the second half of the 20th century. His Manhattan gallery was known for showing Abstract Expressionist, New York School, and contemporary realist painting and found object sculpture alongside primitive and folk art. He also amassed a huge personal collection. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Stone and his colleagues Ivan Karp and Gil Shapiro dubbed themselves the Anonymous Art Reclamation Society, “which staged nighttime raids on demolition sites, scavenging carved sculptures and decorations from old buildings. Most of their finds eventually ended up in the collection and the courtyard of the Brooklyn Museum…”

Condition: Generally very good with usual expected wear and shrinkage; light restoration to carving and finish.


“Cathead.” Wikipedia. 15 November 2018. (23 January 2019).

Craig, James A. “New Discoveries Concerning the Bold Art of John Haley Bellamy.” Antiques & Fine Art. Autumn 2014. Incollect. (23 January 2019).

National Maritime Museum. (2017).

Smith, Roberta. “Allan Stone, Noted Art Dealer and Collector, Dies at 74.” New York Times. 18 December 2006. (21 January 2019).