The Mysterious Tale of the Sir Galahad Figurehead

Apr 27, 2011

Do You Recognize this Man?
by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

Over the next month, join me as we explore the stories behind some of the artwork and artifacts from SCI’s collection.

Sir Galahad has welcomed seafarers and visitors alike to SCI for 85 years—his huge armored frame looming with visor raised as he steps forward, drawing his sword against an imaginary foe. The iconic figurehead has moved with the Institute to four different headquarters. His latest stop— the International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark, where he was carefully mounted just weeks ago. Many people familiar with SCI have seen Sir Galahad, but how many know of the good knight’s mysterious past, rife with intrigue, shipwrecks, and a treacherous antiques dealer?

I. J. Merritt purchased Sir Galahad at an Anderson Art Galleries auction in 1926. The figurehead had been brought over to the States from England as part of the collection of a certain Captain Chambers. Merritt officially presented the figurehead to SCI on May 18, 1927, as a gift in memory of his father, Capt. Israel J. Merritt, founder of Merritt-Chapman & Scott Salvage Corp., one of the earliest professional maritime salvage companies. The Sir Galahad figurehead was mounted above the doors of the Institute’s headquarters at 25 South Street where he remained alongside the bell of the steamship Atlantic, another of the Institute’s iconic artifacts.

While it was widely assumed that Sir Galahad had once belonged to an actual ship, his origins at the time were unclear. In 1933, a Boston antiques dealer came forward with a chart dated to 1749 depicting the brig Galahad of Marblehead, MA with a sketch of what appeared to be Sir Galahad himself. Two articles in the Herald Tribune and the New York Times claimed to solve the mystery of SCI’s figurehead, referencing the Boston dealer’s chart. However, a marine artist named Charles R. Patterson publicly disputed the claim, arguing that a small brig such as the Galahad would never have been able to support a figurehead the size of Sir Galahad. The chart was subject to chemical tests, the results of which proved that the chart was indeed a forgery: the drawing of the Sir Galahad figurehead had been added to the antique chart at a date much later than 1749—apparently by the dealer himself. Our good knight’s beginnings remained a mystery.

From then on, the story only grew more complex. Patterson went on to claim that Sir Galahad’s design is uniquely American, his shape breaking with the typical English design, which maintains an unbroken line from the ship’s prow through the figurehead. Patterson’s claims were followed by those of a maritime enthusiast doctor, who pointed out that traditionally Sir Galahad is depicted as being clean-shaven, whereas SCI’s figurehead sports a robust and bushy mustache, making it more likely that he is a representation of the mustachioed Sir Lancelot, Galahad’s father. Records exist for a tea clipper named Sir Lancelot that foundered in a cyclone in 1895. Bodies were found, but no record survives regarding the fate of the ship’s figurehead. Adding to the mystery was the discovery of records of the steamship Sir Galahad, built in 1874 in Whitby, England and in operation as late as 1911.

So the details of Sir Galahad’s origins remain a mystery to this day, but the purpose of his current post is clear: to help welcome the people of the Port to SCI’s beautifully renovated International Seafarers’ Center. Maybe one day someone will walk through our doors who can finally answer the question for good: do you recognize this man?