Swan stories

Duration: 5:40 minutes
Accession No: TWCMS : 2009.58
This story has been viewed 7852 times

Pauline's story is about the Silver Swan automaton at The Bowes Museum and the childhood memories it brings back.

By Pauline Hukin

Other information

This story was inspired by the Silver Swan automaton from the collections at The Bowes Museum

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Video transcript

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 it.   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.                                                                                                                                

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