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The Silver Swan


History of The Silver Swan

This musical automaton is much loved and over the last century has become the icon of The Bowes Museum. The Silver Swan dates from 1773 and was first recorded in 1774 as a crowd puller in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer. The internal mechanism is by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of the time. 

It was one of the many purchases that the Bowes’ made from Parisian jeweller M. Briquet, with John paying £200 for it in 1872. John and Joséphine first saw the swan at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition where jeweller Harry Emanuel exhibited it.

The American novelist Mark Twain also saw the Silver Swan at the Paris exhibition in 1867 and described it in his book The Innocents Abroad:

‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'

Joséphine, whose father was a clock-maker, seems to have had a fondness for automata. Whilst the Silver Swan is the best known, there are a number of others including mechanical toys, music boxes and watches with automaton movements at The Bowes Museum. Examples include an early 17th century lion clock made in Germany, whose eyes swivel, and a mechanical gold mouse, circa 1810, probably Swiss.

How The Silver Swan Works

The swan is life-size and is controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms. The Silver Swan rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish. When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the Swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to sight a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it, which it then swallows as the music stops and it resumes its upright position.

Usually you can see the Swan in action every afternoon at 2.00. This performance lasts approximately 40 seconds. 

Image: John Joseph Merlin, Thomas Gainsborough, c.1780 

 

Information about closing


19 March 2020

Unfortunately, due to the continuing development of the Coronavirus situation, The Bowes Museum is now closed until further notice. The health and wellbeing of both our customers and our staff is our priority.

Where events can be rescheduled we will endeavour to do so but please be assured that all ticket holders for cancelled events have options on refunds and can contact info@thebowesmuseum.org.uk, however by not requesting a refund you would be making an exceptionally generous and much appreciated charitable donation to The Bowes Museum during these unprecedented times.

Whilst the Museum is closed, we will be working on other ways of sharing our story and collection via our digital platforms. Stay posted for online videos, conversations and more.

We thank you for your patience and your continued support for The Bowes Museum during this unpredictable time. We hope to come back to you with a reopening date shortly, for now, please stay safe and help protect the vulnerable.

25 March 2020

It is with great sadness that The Bowes Museum has taken the decision to temporarily close all gates to the grounds following a spate of vandalism around the parkland.

Since the Museum closed on Wednesday 18 March the benches in the story area have been damaged, the totem pole pulled over and broken, there have been attempts to pull out outdoor trail markers and branches have been pulled down and plants uprooted.

The Museum is working with the police to find the perpetrators of these actions. PC Michael Banks of Durham Constabulary said "This is a shameful piece of criminal damage within the grounds of a historical location in Barnard Castle anyone with information please contact Durham Constabulary quoting reference number DHM23032020-0189"

The Director of The Bowes Museum, Adrian Jenkins, said: "It is a shame that the actions of a few will have an impact on many but this closure also ties in with the latest government advice to stay at home to help restrict the spread of coronavirus and the Museum is following in the footsteps of other organisations who have closed gated parks and gardens.

There are tips from our education officer on the Museum's social media platforms for keeping the kids, and yourselves, entertained while in isolation and we'll be updating the website regularly with new and exciting information about the collection.

In the meantime, please keep safe and we look forward to welcoming you back to the Museum and grounds when it reopens."

You can keep up to date with developments here or on our Facebook and Twitter.

We’ll be back…