Once adorning the yacht Gelert (named after the dog from Welsh folklore), it depicted a full-length crouching deerhound carved in lime wood by James Hellyer of Hellyer & Son in 1867 to the order of R&M Ratsey’s Yard, West Cowes, Isle of Wight, and was estimated at £15,000-25,000 at the auction on April 30.
The carvers became famous for their work used on HMS Warrior and the Cutty Sark.
The 4ft 6in (1.37m) carving ended up selling to a US buyer for £52,000 (plus 24% buyer’s premium) – a house record for a figurehead at a Miller auction. His previous record was the George Forster example which made £24,000 in November 2015.
The yacht Gelert RYS, a racing vessel which would have been used for cruising as well, had a royal connection – she once belonged to Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, Prince Henry of Battenberg, who bought it in 1891. However, the prince had in fact renamed the vessel the Sheila, after his old yacht, and she underwent a complete refit at Cowes, which was finished by placing a new figurehead on the vessel, in the form of a bust of Princess Beatrice (the queen’s fifth daughter and youngest child, whom he eventually married).
That meant the Gelert figurehead went into storage, inadvertently keeping it extremely well-preserved and in excellent shape. Miller said: “Condition and quality carving I think counted for more than the royal connection, which was a slightly fleeting one, so far in that the only reason it survived is that the royals kicked it off the yacht.”
Unusual subject matter also helped. “I can’t remember selling an animal figurehead,” added Miller, who holds his sales at the Olympia auctions base in West Kensington. “It is also very rare for figureheads from racing yachts to come up. In fact, everything about it was very rare.”
The Hellyer family of carvers became famous for their work used on HMS Warrior and the Cutty Sark.
The figurehead was acquired on the closure of Ratsey and Lapthorn’s Yard (Isle of Wight) in the 1960s and had remained in the same family ever since.
The identity of the carver was confirmed by an inscription added to the reverse of a contemporary photograph of this head used in the book British Figurehead & Ship Carvers by PN Thomas.
Miller said: “This is beautiful as it is, but being able to locate a period image of it and knowing the carving firm is exceptionally unusual, and you can see these guys were simply the master carvers of their day.
“Besides the fact it is a figurehead, this is a stunningly lovely study of a deerhound anyway – anybody who is interested in dogs should have been attracted by it.”