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.
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.
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!
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.