Friday, January 21, 2011

The Silver Swan, Swimming Sumptuously since 1774

Friday, January 21, 2011

Susan reporting:

"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 – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through all the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...."
             – The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

We TNHG freely admit to a fascination with 18th c. automata. Whether made for a queen (like this one), or for the amusement of the general public in a museum, automata combine the beauty of fine jewelry, the intricate gears and clockwork of a music box, and the imagination of a master craftsman who dared to make things move long before batteries and computer chips.

Few of these gems remain today, their delicate mechanisms the victims of changing tastes and rust. The Silver Swan's survival is all the more amazing considering that it is, indeed, wrought almost entirely of silver, including 122 silver leaves in the base and 113 silver rings in the articulated neck.

Created by master clockmaker John-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), the Swan first appeared as a featured attraction in James Cox's London Museum in the Spring Gardens between 1774 and 1782.  The Museum's collection included a peacock that spread its tail, jewel-studded elephants, and mechanized trumpets and drums playing God Save the King. Cox's Museum was a first-rate show (admission was a then-staggering 10s 6d), and Everyone went. The heroine of Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) didn't think much of it, however: "This Museum is very astonishing and very superb, yet, it afforded me but little pleasure, for it is a mere show, though a wonderful one."

The attractions passed through several more owners and various museums over the next hundred years. Most of the pieces were eventually broken up or scattered. Miraculously the Swan escaped, continuing to charm viewers like Mark Twain. It was displayed at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867 before it was finally purchased in 1872 by collector John Bowes.  It became a favorite exhibit in the Bowes Museum, County Durham, England, where it remains to this day.

Recently cleaned, refurbished, and restored in 2008, the Silver Swan once again plays its original eight tunes, and continues to choose and swallow a silver fish from the shimmering pond of crystal rods. Although nearly 240 years old, the Swan still performs daily in the Bowes Museum, and, as this video proves, still possesses the power to amaze and delight.

 Here is an additional video about the Swan's restoration.


Anonymous said...

Oh I love the Silver Swan! My grandparents took me to see it a couple of times when I was a little girl and I took my eldest son to see it a couple of years ago, when we were on holiday nearby.

It thrills me that it is just as beautiful now as it ever was. :)

The Devoted Classicist said...

This silver swan is truly amazing

Anonymous said...

The Swan truly is an unforgettable piece. You might be interested to see the new collection box at the Bowes - a cousin of the swan goes a'begging.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The Silver Swan really is special. After posting this, I've had the other-worldly tune playing in my head all day.

Anonymous, thank you so much for that link about the coin-collecting swan - what a coincidence that the story appeared today!

Jo Manning said...

Love automata! The Georgians were delighted with venue's such as Cox's. Thanks for this charming article.

nightsmusic said...

That's just beautiful! Even my DH, who usually doesn't care for anything not car related thought it was fascinating.

I worked for a time for friends of ours who owned a small jewelry store. He is a master jeweler and taught me so much. Even as gifted as he is though, he was always in awe of the skill it took to keep the tiny mechanism in a small watch running. He often says and I think he's right, that the level of skill and craftsmanship it takes to make something like that is such a dying art.

Here's to hoping this swan lives a long, long time.

Katya said...

truly amazing

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