Its like at the zoo. Parents and children of all ages waiting for the penguin feeding time. Whatever, at least half an hour before , many gather to get a better seat. We have come to see one of the wonders of a previous age, a wonder which will can still make us smile and clap. The Silver Swan and Bowes Museum , Castle Barnard Durham. This animal is very different.
Some previous technologies can still make us stand and stare, fireworks,fountains, grandfather clocks,penny farthings. And the Silver Swan.
This wonderful automaton was built just off Fleet Street at the same time that Sam Johnston still stalked that street in the small hours. Maybe the silver smith was working late and the good Dr popped in for a chat, how he loved to chat. The Swan must have been a wonder then but still it brings in the crowds everyday.
The Bowes Museum of which this is a part is of course one of the wonders of the North, the fantastic collection (5 El Grecos etc) was the result of a coal mining magnate who made sure that his name will live for ever more. The wonderful swan had been exhibited in the Paris World fair of 1867 and our John bought it five years later.
The attendant comes in. Very quietly with the modesty of the powerful, he has after all the starting handle, he tells the simple story of this graceful beast (see below and you tube). He offers the handle to one who has a birthday that day. And the short but perfectly formed show begins.
The swan, which is life size, is a clockwork driven device that includes a music box. The swan sits in a “stream” that is made of glass rods and is surrounded by silver leaves. Small silver fish can be seen “swimming” in the stream.
When the clockwork is wound the music box plays and the glass rods rotate giving the illusion of flowing water. The swan turns its head from side to side and also preens itself. After a few moments the swan notices the swimming fish and bends down to catch and eat one. The swan’s head then returns to the upright position and the performance, which has lasted about 40 seconds, is over. To help preserve the mechanism the swan is only operated once each day at 2pm.