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Working like Clockwork: Celebrated 18th Century Silver Swan Automaton performs again with help from local expert

Communities / Thu 18th Apr 2024 at 12:11pm

by HELEN MILLER

A WORLD-famous 18th century clockwork swan can now “feed” again, after a local watchmaker stepped in to help.  Seth Kennedy, who’s an antiquarian horologist based at Grandey’s Place Heritage & Craft Centre in Green Tye, was called upon by The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle to help them get their stunning silver swan automaton performing again after its fragile mechanisms seized up in lockdown.

The life-size swan is considered one of the world’s finest examples of 18th century automata, or clockwork machines designed to replicate real life. It appears to swim in a flowing stream made of rotating glass rods, twisting its neck to preen before catching a gilded fish, all to a musical accompaniment. It was a wonder of engineering at the time, comprising three clockwork mechanisms and more than 2,000 moving parts.  

 “It’s such a unique and important object,” says Seth. “The magic of the swan for me was helping to get it working and moving smoothly again and, I guess, to follow in the footsteps of great engineers and inventors.” 

Seth worked with fellow specialists from the Cumbria Clock Company as well as members of the museum’s in-house conservation team. His particular role was to repair many of the 124 articulated rings that make up the swan’s neck and restore its beak mechanism so it could “catch” the golden fish. In reality, the fish is cleverly concealed within its beak and rotates to create the illusion of being caught and swallowed.  

The swan was made in the London workshop of James Cox with the internal mechanism designed by inventor John Joseph Merlin, and was first shown to the public in 1773. Now over 250 years old, it’s back in action again with daily public performances – and still has the power to enthral modern day audiences. 

“I think people today are fascinated that something like this could be made then,” says Seth. “People today don’t realise what could be done 250 years ago and they’re surprised that this technology even existed in the eighteenth century.”  

Usually, Seth works alone at his workbench at Grandey’s Place, restoring pocket watches dating from the 17th to mid 20th centuries and engineering minuscule parts for their intricate internal mechanisms. He says the specialisms he has learned over the years enabled him to adapt his skills to the silver swan project. 

“Because I deal with watches from that era, but also from all eras and I’ve seen such a range of technology, I had an idea of what techniques the makers were calling on to create something like that,” says Seth. “It’s a real privilege to have been associated with it.”

For more about Seth, visit: www.sethkennedy.co.uk. Regular tours of Grandey’s Place are also available. See www.grandeysplace.co.uk for more details. 

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1 Comment for Working like Clockwork: Celebrated 18th Century Silver Swan Automaton performs again with help from local expert:

Resident
2024-04-18 17:08:34

What a fantastic skill and thing to be involved in. Very clever

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