THE FIGUREHEAD OF THE YACHT GELERT, R.Y.S., CARVED BY JAMES HELLYER OF HELLYER & SON TO THE ORDER OF R. & M. RATSEY'S YARD, WEST COWES, 1867
Realistically carved in lime wood as a full-length crouching wolfhound waiting for a command, his head alert with inset brown glass eyes looking up, mounted on a scrollwork bow section with thole pin and securing holes and finished in contemporary silver-grey polychrome. There are few figureheads know with glass eyes and this is the only one known from the Hellyer carvers.
Dimensions: 17 x 54 x 9in.
Provenance: Aboard Gelert, 1867-1891; Ratsey's Yard, Isle of Wight, 1891-c.1960s; Digby Coventry (1919-2014), acquired from Ratsey's dispersal sale on closure, c.1960s, and thence by descent.
The Hellyer family of carvers became famous for their carvings used by H.M.S. Warrior and the Cutty Sark, but had been active as mainly Naval Dockyard carvers for about 400 years before these commissions. Listed in contemporary directories as 'designers' as well as carvers, their name is a byword for quality, a fact that is readily confirmed by the exquisite handling of the example offered here. It is comparatively rare to know the name of the vessel a head was intended for and very rare to know the name of its designer and carver, confirmed in this case by an inscription added to the reverse of a contemporary photograph of this head used in the book British Figurehead & Ship Carvers by P.N. Thomas where it is stated to be inscribed By James Hellyer, carver to the Royal Navy.
The reportedly “fine schooner yacht” Gelert was built for Colonel Edward Loyd, a prominent member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, by Messrs. R. & M. Ratsey at West Cowes and launched from their yard by Mrs. Sandford, Colonel Loyd’s cousin, on 18th April 1867. Named for the legendary dog “Gelert” from Welsh folklore, the yacht was registered at 168 tons gross (94 net) and measured 98 feet in length with a 20 foot beam. Sporting the particularly distinctive figurehead being offered here, she attracted attention wherever she went but Loyd soon tired of her and she was laid up in 1870 and replaced with a 92-ton yawl called Day Dream. After ten years of idleness, Gelert was finally sold to Charles Howard, 5th Earl of Wicklow (in 1880) who unfortunately died the following year and was succeeded by his brother Cecil. Cecil Howard, the 6th Earl, like his deceased brother, was also a member of the R.Y.S. and he raced Gelert until 1889 when she was again laid up pending sale.
Late the following year (1890), the Gelert was lying in the Medina River awaiting a buyer when she was spotted by Prince Henry of Battenberg, an enthusiastic yachtsman who was looking to replace his 62-ton yawl Sheila with something larger. Instantly attracted to Gelert’s fine lines, Prince Henry bought her and, on 29th January, 1891, the Isle of Wight newspapers reported that:
“Prince Henry of Battenberg’s recently-purchased schooner, the Gelert, has been re-named the Sheila, after his old yacht, and she has undergone a complete refit at Cowes, which has been finished by placing a new figure-head on the vessel, which takes the form of a bust of Princess Beatrice.”
As stated so clearly in this newsprint, the beautiful figurehead of the dog Gelert had been removed and put into storage where it remained until purchased by the present owner’s grandfather in the 1960s. Replaced by a bust of Princess Beatrice, herein lay the simple reason for the survival of this splendid figurehead in such exceptional condition.
Prince Henry of Battenberg, born in 1858, was a morganatic descendant of the (German) Grand Ducal House of Hesse and was a familiar visitor to England and Queen Victoria’s extended family, so much so that in 1884 he became engaged to Princess Beatrice, the Queen’s fifth daughter and youngest child. The Queen however, would only approve the marriage provided the young Battenbergs made their home with her and the couple had no option but to agree. Married in 1885, Prince Henry was made Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1889, an event which probably sparked his desire for a larger racing yacht. Sadly, Prince Henry, having finally persuaded the Queen to allow him to go to West Africa to take part in the so-called Ashanti War, died of malaria during the campaign in January 1896. When the news reached the Queen, she is said to have cried out “The sunbeam in our home is GONE!”, and whether this is true or not, the Prince’s beloved yacht Sheila, formerly the handsome Gelert, quietly disappeared from record thereafter.
The Legend of Gelert the Dog by Ben Johnson
One of the best known, and loved, folk-tales in Wales is the story of a faithful hound.
The story goes that in the thirteenth-century, Prince Llywelyn the Great had a palace at Beddgelert in Caernarvonshire, and as the Prince was a keen hunter, he spent much of his time in the surrounding countryside. He had many hunting dogs, but one day when he summoned them as usual with his horn, his favourite dog Gelert didn’t appear, so regretfully Llywelyn had to go hunting without him.
When Llywelyn returned from the hunt, he was greeted by Gelert who came bounding towards him …his jaws dripping with blood.
The Prince was appalled, and a horrible thought came into his mind …was the blood on the dog’s muzzle that of his one-year old son. His worst fears were realised when he saw in the child’s nursery, an upturned cradle, and walls spattered with blood! He searched for the child but there was no sign of him. Llywelyn was convinced that his favourite hound had killed his son.
Mad with grief he took his sword and plunged it into Gelert’s heart.
As the dog howled in his death agony, Llywelyn heard a child’s cry coming from underneath the upturned cradle. It was his son, unharmed!
Beside the child was an enormous wolf, dead, killed by the brave Gelert.