When I was little my mother was really good at birthday parties. The highlight for
me was that she would make a life size swan out of white cardboard. She cut
out two swans and then glued together the heads, necks and tails, leaving the
middle body area to be pushed out to make a sort of bowl. This would be filled
with crackers – one for each child who came to the party and for me too. I loved
Several times in my life when I’ve been searching for something, it’s the
something that has found me rather than me finding it. This happened with my
current job as an education assistant at the Bowes Museum. It came out of the
blue and rescued me from a job I was very unhappy in.
It took me a while to learn about the collections and the history of the Museum.
The most famous artefact is the life size silver swan – a 230 year old musical
automaton – once seen, never forgotten. Here was another swan in my life.
The swan has recently had major conservation work done to it by one of only
three experts in the UK who had the appropriate skills. Matthew Read is an
horologist and specialist conservator and he regarded this unique 3 month
project as the job of a lifetime.
He held daily morning briefings so that museum staff could be up to date with his
progress – as questions about the swan were being continually asked by visitors.
Going to the briefings was like being treated to story time; the information was a
mix of social history, technical details and detective work presented in Matthew’s
engaging style. His reporting of the meticulous dismantling of every single piece
of the swan had me spellbound. As a complete Luddite on matters engineering,
amazingly I began to understand about cams and followers and arbours. I was
struck by the admiration Matthew showed for the 18th century craftsmanship he
encountered each day. It was infectious. His knowledge and enthusiasm taught
me a great deal about the ethics of conservation.
The top quality silversmithing, from the London workshop of James Cox is
matched by the masterful engineering of the clockwork mechanisms that are
usually hidden by the magnificent body. Every component has been cleaned,
photographed and logged. The conservation workshop was able to be viewed by
the public who could see, for example, the removed head looking
uncharacteristically inanimate lying on its side on a shelf.
The carcass, once revealed, made the swan look like an alien creature but it
showed the ingenuity of the designer, aptly named Merlin, and this stage of the
conservation seemed to attract increasing numbers of men clearly fascinated by
the machinery. Matthew explained that during its manufacture test runs would
have been made to see if the energy of the clockwork was sufficiently powerful to
make the swan do its trick of eating a fish as well as drive the brass spiked barrel
for the musical feature. In fact they had to double up the power by adding
another cylinder containing two more springs, making the energy produced about
80 times greater than the springs used to run a grandfather clock. Some areas
have had holes made and then immaculately plugged because the position
wasn’t quite right.
The swan has been repaired many times in its long history and its latest
conservation by such a caring and respectful expert has unravelled all sorts of
mysteries. Even so, who was responsible for putting the fish back facing the
wrong way, we wonder? What happened to the 17 foot high canopy that once
was the backdrop complete with a sun fashioned out of silver? Did the swan
once float on a real expanse of water contained in a beautifully made copper
bath? Only the swan can know for certain.