The Iconic ‘Silver Swan’ Automaton Gets a Well-Deserved Fluff of the Feathers

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In the 250 years since its fabrication in the studio of jeweler and entrepreneur James Cox, the Silver Swan automaton has beguiled viewers. The mechanical sculpture continues to live up to its original purpose, designed as a crowd-puller to the artist’s workshop in 18th-century London, which also served as a small museum. Today, it is an iconic resident of the The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham, U.K.

Cox modeled the life-size creature on a female swan, incorporating 2,000 moving parts, including 139 crystal rods and 113 neck rings. A slew of delicate pieces are encased in chased, repoussé silver, operated by three clockwork mechanisms that control a music box, a pool of glass with swimming silver fish, and the complex movements of the swan’s head and neck. At the 1867 Paris International Exhibition, its large scale and hefty price tag of 50,000 francs—today that would be well over $200,000—created a sensation. Five years later, the museum’s namesake, John Bowes, bought it in Paris for a tenth of that price and brought it home to the U.K.

In a video produced in 2021, a specialist team of conservators and curators painstakingly dismantled the sculpture to examine the condition of its mechanisms and create a plan for its preservation. This year, the swan is undergoing meticulous repairs and cleaning, and the museum anticipates that the work will be completed by the end of the year.

Cox also designed the well-known Peacock Clock for Catherine the Great, a treasure of the State Hermitage Museum’s collection in Russia. Learn more about the Silver Swan on The Bowes Museum’s website. (via The Kid Should See This)


All images © The Bowes Museum

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