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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.

Conservation in action

The life-size Silver Swan rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish which are controlled by three complex clockwork mechanisms. The age of the mechanisms as well as their complexity means the Silver Swan is very fragile and, like so many of us, it has been impacted by the pandemic, so we have begun a complex conservation repair of this important automaton.

The conservation repair is very specialised and fantastically expensive. It happens rarely so we will be doing as much of the repair and conservation work in the Museum, enabling visitors to see it taking place on film and in public – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Visitors will see how the Swan comes apart, how the mechanism winds, the glass rods which rotate, see our team repair the Swan’s head and the fish it bends down to catch.

The fascinating film of the conservation process, funded by the Friends of The Bowes Museum, will be playing in the Museum and sometimes visitors may be lucky enough to see this work taking place when they visit the Museum, if our team are at work.

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