The Silver Swan

Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking watchmaking automata Hugo The Silver Swan Automaton The Bowes Museum

The Swan – case removed

My favourite object in the world is called The Silver Swan automaton. I learned about it when my (then future) tutor Matthew Read was leading and overseeing a host of conservation works being performed on it. I had the opportunity to assist him with some regular maintenance to this amazing object – as well as in the assessment of other automata in the collection – during a week long work placement at the Bowes Museum.

Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking watchmaking automata Hugo The Silver Swan

Working at the Bowes Museum

What I love perhaps most about this particular automaton is the grace with which it captivates its audience. It conveys vulnerability while embodying the strength and beauty of a living swan.

It is thought that real swans were used to model each piece of the automaton’s intricate body. Each silver feather is hand chased with the detail one would find if analyzing a real swan feather.

The Swan’s perfectly articulated neck has 113 silver rings that move in fluid motion with the fusee chain/pulley system underneath, the look of which might remind one of  the links in a modern metal watch band.

Swimming between contra rotating twisted glass rods simulating water (operated by small brass pinions fixed to the end of each rod) are small silver fish – some of which are original and made during the Swan’s initial construction. These fish swim up and down through the “water” as the Swan preens its feathers and cranes its neck to catch one.

Silver swan automaton

The twisted glass and silver fish

Three clock mechanisms operate the Swan and a carillon of bells from which eight tunes can be chosen to accompany the Swan’s performance.

What a privilege it was to be so close to the product of such ingenuity and an example of the best of human endeavor!

Bowes Museum Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking automata automaton

The Swan

To listen to an interview with Matthew Read about the works to the Swan click here.

The week by week summary of the conservation works performed can be found here.

The Swan’s performance can be seen here.

Matthew recently returned to the Swan at the Bowes Museum, read about it here.

The Fox and the Sea

It was late at night in the West Dean workshop when I decided to make a little toy automaton for my husband Thomas for Christmas one year.

Nico Cox toy automata automaton toys

From the top

As we both love foxes and I was literally an ocean away, I decided to make a little fox on a boat at sea.

As you turn the handle the waves go up and down and the ship rocks to and fro.

A central arbor with eccentric brass discs controls the motion of the waves and boat.

Fox and ship automaton clockmaking watchmaking nico cox brittany cox hugo

From the front

After whittling them from wood, the waves were stained with oil paint and the fox painted with acrylics. The ship was from a jumble sale. When I acquired it, the masts were broken and hull damaged. After some repairs the ship was back in sailing order.

Nico Cox Brittany Cox toy automaton automata fox and ship

From the back

Once assembled, I found the waves were a bit heavy and required counter weights. These were made from brass cylinders soldered to pins fixed to the waves. After adding the filed taper pin to secure the arbor to the box wood frame, I gave the handle a little turn and was pleased.

the fox and the sea automaton toy ship automaton fox automaton

The Fox and the Sea

As the finishing touch I added a little gold tassel curtain in front.

George Pyke’s Musical Clock

I had the privilege of working with Conservator Ian Fraser at Temple Newsam House in Leeds, England. Together, we worked for two years on the prospect of making conservation works to an important piece in the collection possible.

Temple Newsam House

Temple Newsam House

The house holds this treasure in its stairwell. A musical clock made in 1765. The clock stands in excess of 6 feet tall on its pedestal.

Circa 1765, signed George Pyke

Circa 1765, signed George Pyke


The organ and clockwork

The organ and clockwork (left)

The organ and clockwork

The organ and clockwork (right)












The clock consists of two main components: Its case, which houses the clock, automata and dial, and barrel organ, is accented with ormolu rosettes baring peninsular corners and banded by looking glass while supported by pairs of ormolu feet. Four brass columns corner the case and are spirally banded by a cascading floral trail. At the top of each stands an urn finial. Matching and elaborately pierced chased gilt bronze panels of floral sprays, musical instruments, female masks, and flaming urns fill the arched side doors, lined with green cloth. The hood is surmounted by a cast figure of Mercury. Two arched doors that are bolted by lock and key enclose the organ mechanism and clock.



The petite white enamelled dial is set in the midst of a vibrant village scene, alive with music and dancing figures. Whilst above the dance, the village continues with routine. A dog chases a duck through a pond, people make their way across a distant bridge, and boats bustle through rolling waves in the outlying sea. The seven muses in gilded bronze can be found lounging beneath the dial while Diana and Apollo stand erect upon pedestals flanked by urns. The clock strikes the hours and the organ plays eight tunes. Its high hollow pedestal that the clock and case rest upon, which allows space for the descent of the massive hundred pound weight needed to drive the automata, program barrel, and provide wind to the pipe organ. It is veneered in ebony with brass banding. Gilt bronze lion’s masks watch from the top four pedestal corners while satirical masks look out from below and pierced foliated strap work plaques parallel each. The four sides of the pedestal are bestowed with a gilt framed mirror.

It is a marvel to behold and enchants any audience with its performance.

Working on the dial

Assessing the dial

I ventured to Temple Newsam on several occasions to assess the clock and its condition. After putting together a proposal for its conservation we applied for grants, hoping to achieve funding for the project. Currently Temple Newsam possesses half of the necessary amount required to carry out the conservation works, though proposals are still in progress. Should the money be obtained, it is likely I will be heading back to England to work on this exceptional object.

Here’s to hoping the three of us will soon be reunited!

Final touches before replacing the hood

Final touches before replacing the hood