Saga of the Jenny Lind Figurehead
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

POssible Jenny Lind Figurehead on Karl-Eric Svardskog

Was this carved statue once the figurehead of a Portsmouth Harbor clipper ship? That’s what Karl-Eric Svardskog believes after nearly two decades of study. But after taking Jenny Lind back to the USA from Norway, this infatuated collector now has to part from his beloved statue forever.




Was She Really on the Clipper Nightingale?

UPDATE: Jenny LInd Sells at Sothebys

What do Eliot, Maine, a Swedish singer, a slave ship and PT Barnum all have in common? More hints? It's made of wood, really old, looks like a lady, and is about to go on the auction block at Southeby’s.

No idea? Don’t pine. History trivia rarely gets more convoluted than the knotty saga of the Jenny Lind figurehead. I first reported this story a decade ago after making contact with Swedish maritime antique dealer Karl-Eric Svardskog. He was in the USA in 1997 drumming up interest in a mysterious figurehead that he claims belonged to a Portsmouth-built clipper ship. Now, after bringing Jenny across the globe, he feels the time his approaching, when the two must part company. But let’s begin at the beginning.

The Phenomenal Jenny Lind

Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind / SeacoastNH.comThe baby destined to become the most famous female singer of the 19th century first vocalized in Stockholm, Sweden in 1820. Born to an impoverished mother and a deadbeat dad, Jenny the soprano "nightingale" became the toast of Europe in her early 20s. Plain looking and painfully shy, Jenny turned down the marriage proposal of children's author Hans Christian Anderson, who legend says, penned "The Ugly Duckling" in her honor. Jenny toured Europe with composer Felix Mendelssohn. This time she fell in love, but Mendelssohn was married.

Think of Jenny Lind as the Victorian version of the Beatles. A century before Beatlemania, her British tour set off an explosion of popularity called "Jenny Rage." People mobbed her concerts. In 1850, entertainment promoter PT Barnum brought Jenny to the United States. Barnum later formed the famous touring circus that bears his name. Think of Barnum as the Ed Sullivan who introduced Jenny to America in nearly 100 concerts. Jenny was bigger than all of Barnum's acts before her -- bigger than the midget Tom Thumb, more popular than Jumbo the elephant, more curious than Chang and Eng the Siamese Twins and the Feejee Mermaid all rolled into one.

During the Jenny Rage, people named towns, furniture, their schools and their kids after Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind, North Carolina, took her name because, historians there claim, she sang a song beneath a tree nearby. At least four contemporary ships were named in her honor, including the Nightingale, which many believe was the fastest and sleekest clipper ship ever constructed in the Portsmouth Harbor area, perhaps in the world.

CONTINUE Nightingale Figurehead


Clipper ship Nightingale and Jenny LInd Figurehead/ Karl-Eric Svardskog

The Clipper Ship Nightingale

In 1851, the same year Jenny Lind arrived in Boston, the Nightingale (originally named Sarah Cowles) left its berth place in Eliot, Maine. It was towed up the Piscataqua River to Boston, Mass.. Owners planned to use the fast, sleek clipper to whisk 50 first-class passengers ($125 round trip) to the London World's Fair that season. The idea fell through. In Boston the carved figurehead of a woman resembling the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind was added. At least, that's what Karl-Eric Svardskog believes.

The Nightingale traveled around the world at record speeds, but finding enough passengers who could afford the rapid transit clipper proved difficult. Passengers were replaced by cargo, as a series of new owners struggled to make the ship profitable. One owner transformed the ship into a slaver since it could outrun the English and American authorities. 960 enslaved Africans were crowded into a ship built for 50 wealthy tourists. Another Portsmouth-built ship, the Saratoga, was instrumental in capturing the Nightingale. The passengers were freed, but horribly, nearly 200 had died of illness, starvation and abuse.

Sold to owner after owner, the Nightingale was for a time the property of the United States Navy and used to haul coal. Once among the world's fastest clippers, Nightingale was reduced to transporting lumber when it was finally abandoned off Norway in 1894. By this time both PT Barnum and Jenny Lind were dead. Lind died in 1887 after a long self-imposed retirement. Wealthy and isolated, her 1850s whirlwind tour of America turned out to be her last.

The Scarecrow in the Barn

Fast forward to 1994. That's the year antiques hunter Svardskog heard about the large wooden carving shaped like a woman that a Swedish family once used as a scarecrow. He found it in a hayloft, one arm sticking out of the hay, where it had apparently lain for a century. Compelled to track down the origin of the life-sized ship's figurehead, Svardskog searched six years for clues to its origin. He traced the carving to Boston artist John Mason and matched it to publicity pictures of the famous Swedish soprano. Of the four ships named in honor of Lind, only the Portsmouth-area clipper matched the timeline necessary to validate Svardskog's theory. But didn't that Nightingale sink off the coast of Norway in 1894?

In his research, Svardskog discovered that the Nightingale had actually been in the vicinity of the town where the figurehead was discovered. In 1874, workers had refit the ship in Norway nearby. The bow of the ship was damaged on a reef off the coast of Kargero. Svardskog theorizes that the Jenny Lind figurehead was removed during the repair work, and did not go down with the ship years later. The original boathouse of the Nightingale, removed during repair, is still at the repair yard in Norway. Transporting the heavy carving to Sweden was possible, he says, because there was a railroad line that once ran between the shipyard and the farm where the "scarecrow" was found. Was Svardskog right, or simply bending facts to fit his theory?

CONTINUE Nightingale Figurehead


Karl-Eric Svardskog & his

The Evidence in the Email

A few years after reporting this story, I got an email from a reader of my website who had seen my article on the Jenny Lind carving. She said her great-grandfather Christian Ingebretsen had been one of the final owners of the clipper Nightingale. The reader had an oil painting of the Nightingale flying the Norwegian flag. She wrote: " The oil painting that I have clearly shows a figurehead that appears to be a woman with blonde hair. It appears very much the same as the photo [of the carving] on the web site with the ship and the Jenny Lind figure superimposed."

I contacted Karl-Eric who happened to be in the United State at the time working on a book about his beloved statue, and told him about the email. When the reader sent photos of the painting, the author, with publisher Peter Randall, rushed expectantly into my office. This, he said, might be proof he had been searching for. We studied the digital picture on the computer screen, staring at a magnified image until our eyes ached. The tiny speck on the bow of the Nightingale painting looked like the figurehead of Jenny Lind. Absolutely!!. But, on closer examination, it also looked, well - like a speck.

Jenny Tours Again

To say the antique dealer became obsessed with his wooden Jenny is no exaggeration. Like a modern day PT Barnum, Karl-Eric Svardskog brought the statue back to America in 2001. He wrote a book, published by the Portsmouth Marine Society and Peter Randall, that chronicles his efforts to prove the Nightingale theory. Svardskog‘s case, although supported only by circumstantial evidence, is strong.

The author did his homework. Studies of documents, tests on the wood and paint of the figurehead, all line up with his theory that the carving may indeed be Jenny Lind from the Piscataqua clipper Nightingale. Revell Carr of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut is one of many experts impressed by Svardskog's evidence. Carr notes in the new book that only a dozen of Mystic's 70 carved figureheads have been accurately identified.

Early in the summer of 2001 Svardskog unveiled the figurehead during a concert at the Portsmouth Music Hall. The evening featured two winners of a Jenny Lind contest for sopranos -- one American, one Swedish -- another testament to Lind's enduring fame. Ironically, for reasons unknown, the flesh-and-blood Jenny Lind refused to perform in Portsmouth during her 1851 American tour. Despite the snub, Portsmouth presented three Jennies that night in 2001 - two singing like nightingales, one as silent as a block of wood dramatically lit at the back of the stage. It was a memorable sight.

CONTINUE Nightingale Figurehead


Jenny Up for Sale

After a brief exhibition at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Jenny Lind went back into her specially built shipping crate for a trip to Connecticut. At Mystic Seaport she communed with dozens of fellow figureheads. She has been exhibited from Norway to New York. She has been featured with a full symphony orchestra. Jenny has her own DVD documentary. She has her own web site. She has a second book, this one in Swedish. She met the king of Sweden and appeared in National Geographic.

But was this Jenny Lind really part of the Clipper Nightingale? The jury is still out. The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA has a Jenny Lind figurehead of its own. Another similar figurehead with long flowing hair was reportedly carved in Salem, MA for the clipper ship "Jenny Lind". You can buy a three-foot tall polyurethane molded foam version of that statue on eBay and paint it to suit your taste.

At a Portsmouth, NH reception, after uncrating the heavy statue, Svardskog in 2001 gazed at the now familiar image as it turned slowly on an automated pedestal. "She haunts me," he said. "She is like a ghost."

Jenny, like a ghost, did not respond.

Now after 16 years together, it may be time for Jenny and her promoter to part. Unlike the original singer, this Jenny brings in no income. Shipping her around the globe has cost Svardskog untold thousands of dollars. Has tracing her history and making headlines turned the Jenny figurehead into gold? Svardskog has asked Southeby’s auction house to put JennyLind on the block this fall. Will she sing for his supper or sink like the clipper ship Nightingale?

Copies of the book "Jenny Lind and the Clipper Nightingale Figurehead" by Karl-Eric Svardskog, are still available from the publisher at Peter Randall Publisher.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. First published in a slightly different version © 2001.