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 in the form of a maritime ship cathead carving in style, execution, size, and form, based on documented ones. The lack of weathering, however, suggests it was not used on a ship; it might have been made by the artist just as a sculpture in the form of a cathead carving. Alternatively, the artist might have made this for, or in the style of, a circus or carousel decoration, or from other inspiration.
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 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).
Condition: Generally very good with usual expected minor restorations and wear.
“Cathead.” Wikipedia. 15 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathead (23 January 2019).
Craig, James A. “New Discoveries Concerning the Bold Art of John Haley Bellamy.” Antiques & Fine Art. Autumn 2014. Incollect. https://www.incollect.com/articles/new-discoveries-concerning-the-bold-art-of-john-haley-bellamy_1 (23 January 2019).
National Maritime Museum. http://www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/collections/by-type/figureheads (2017).