For nearly 250 years, the silver swan has astonished audiences, and next year it will come to London for the first time in over 150 years.

The Silver Swan automaton – the mascot of The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle – is to migrate to the Science Museum in London for a short visit.

The Silver Swan. Credit: The Bowes Museum

The Silver Swan. Credit: The Bowes Museum

It will be the first time the swan has left The Bowes Museum since its purchase in 1872 by the Museum founders, John and Joséphine Bowes, who paid 5,000 francs (£200) for it. They had earlier seen it at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, where it was also viewed by American author Mark Twain, who later described it in his novel The Innocents Abroad.

I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movements and a living intelligence in his eyes—watched him swimming about as comfortably and as unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler’s shop

Dating from around 1773, the Swan is the only one of its kind in the world, its performances having enchanted audiences through a span of four different centuries.

It was first recorded in 1774 as a crowd puller in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer. Its internal workings – controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms – are attributed to John-Joseph Merlin, the Belgian horologist and famous inventor of the time who, amongst other things, gave the world the rollerskate.

The Silver Swan rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish. When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the Swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to sight a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it, which it then swallows as the music stops and it resumes its upright position.

Adrian Jenkins, Director of The Bowes Museum, said: “The Swan is an internationally recognized icon of The Bowes Museum, like the Canaletto’s or the El Greco, and we’re delighted that visitors to the Science Museum will, for a short period, be able to see its captivating performance.”

The Silver Swan will be on public display in the Robots exhibition for six weeks, from 8 February until 23 March 2017. The Swan will return to The Bowes Museum in time for Easter and the commencement of the Museum’s 125th anniversary celebrations which begin in June 2017.

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2 comments
  1. Anna says:

    beautiful !!!

  2. Caroline says:

    I remember seeing this on a school trip – its wonderful

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