The 2008 Silver Swan Conservation Project


Week 1

Day 1 - 1st September 
This is Day 1 of the public conservation of arguably the Museum’s most loved object, the 235 year old Silver Swan musical automaton.

Over the next 10 weeks specialists Matthew Read and Ken Robinson will be dismantling the Swan and recording every piece for future generations, as part of a much needed in depth overhaul.

Today Ray Mand, who has serviced the Swan for the past 28 years, will remove the head, neck rings and body.

Once this is completed, Ken Robinson will help remove the twisted glass rods which give the effect of water, assessing their condition and photographing them before taking them back to his workshop where they will be cleaned and stored until near the end of the project.


Day 2 - 2nd September 
Day 2 follows on from an extremely successful opening day. A lot has been learnt about the actual machine including the fact that most of the glass rods have been replaced over the years. Another discovery is that not only the initial 20% of the glass rods need cleaning, as first thought, but the whole lot. This will lead to a significant difference when the Swan is put back together as the glass will really sparkle.

Today, specialist Matthew Read will be cleaning the 19th century French silver leaves and storing them away before commencing work on the neck.


Day 3 - 3rd September 
Yesterday saw the removal and cataloguing of the 122 leaves surrounding the Swan. A fragment of one of the leaves will be sent to the Assay office where it will be tested to see what grade of silver it is and where they were made. The numerical markings on them suggest they are French.

Once the glass rods, which create the water effect, were removed it was seen that the reflective backing plates were in poor condition. This is to be addressed by the possible addition of silver leaf which can be removed in the future without damaging the Swan.


Today Matthew and Emma are going to study the head and how it is made, before starting on the neck rings to see which of the 113 are damaged and to learn which have previously been replaced.


Day 4 - 4th September
Yesterday saw the completion of detailed recording of 86 of the 113 next rings. It was found that during previous work on the Swan the numerical markings show that the neck rings were not replaced in the correct order.

Also markings found suggest that in the past there may have been more fish, ornaments or flowers placed between the glass rods.

Another busy day sees:

the continuation of work on the remaining neck rings
the bath tub that the Swan used to sit in being measured and photographed
the fish examined to see if there are any hallmarks
creating templates so that the new backing plates can be created 

 

Day 5 - 5th September 
Yesterday an exciting discovery of stamped punch marks was discovered at the base of the Swan’s neck, which correspond with those on the tails of the fish. These will now need detailed investigation. This has caused some debate as all the fish have the same mark when in actual fact it is thought that 3 of the fish are 18 century and 4 of them 19 century.

Numerical numbers have also been found on the wooden rim of the ‘bathtub’ which possibly correlate to numbers on the Swan. All the neck rings are recorded and prepared for cleaning by specialist Karen Barker.

Today the templates for the backing plates, begun yesterday, will be finished. The plates are now completely off, giving an open view of the mechanism. 

Another important job that is going to be looked at today is the workings of the tracking that the fish are attached to, before work progresses on the music box.

Read More

Week 2

Day 6 - 8th September
Friday saw Emma complete a full survey of the ‘bathtub’ before it was cleaned ready to store away. The survey conducted showed that markings on the leaves and the bathtub corresponded.

All backing plates have been removed so that the mechanism is now in full view. On Thursday marks were found on the base of the Swan’s neck and the tails of the fish. These have now been confirmed as marks used by the French Assay office. The marks were probably added in about the 1870s when the Swan was taken to France as an exhibit in the Paris International Exhibition. Though made in England, it would have had to have been stamped by the French assay office in order for it to be sold in France. John Bowes bought it in 1872 from the jeweller Monsieur Briquet in Paris.

Finally last week saw the start of the work on the Music box. The first surprise was the incredibly amazing condition it was in. It has also been discovered that the hammers can be finely tuned so that the Swan will sound more musical when performing. The last improvement will be that the music timing can be altered so that it is more or less in time with the Swan’s movements.

Today will see the removal of the main spring from the Music box and the cleaning of it to remove all the old dried up oil. This afternoon work will start on the musical barrel and bells.


Day 7 - 9th September 
Today work on the mechanism proper begins, with progress expected to be at a slower pace as pieces are cleaned as they are removed. The main spring taken out of the music driving barrel is extremely old and would have been hand made. It is highly textured and very different to modern springs.

Emma has taken off the hammer frame to find the bells marked with musical notes. During the Victorian era the hammers were 'improved' with wooden inserts to conform to the more sombre mood of the day rather than the sharp striking originally intended. 

On top of the hammer frame is a plate saying that the Swan was restored by Bryson Smith in the 1960s. However, we know that within the five year period from 1963 to 1968 the whole of the Swan was worked on by three different people. 

The 1968 restoration appears to have been completed in the Spring of 1972, which is the last time any major restoration work was undertaken.

At that time the coin in the slot mechanism was removed and replaced with a counter. This indicates that in the 36 years since then the Swan has been operated over 33,000 times.


Day 8 - 10th September 
Yesterday saw the completion of taking apart the musical workings, with some interesting results.

It had been thought that the Swan performed to only six tunes, but yesterday's findings show that it has the potential for eight. The musical barrel has not been operating properly because the mechanism which moves it has been modified in the past.

Most of the estimated 1,000 pins on the barrel are brass, but others have been replaced by steel which will impact on wear. Many of the pins have been moved to new positions, but it's reassuring that the barrel has not been completely repinned with contemporary modern music. The tails of the hammers have also been rubbing on the drum and causing friction.

Consultation will now take place with experts at the Museum of Mechanical Music in Utrecht to learn more about the tunes.

Today Matthew and Emma will consolidate their work so far by continuing to make a photographic record while the light is good. If progress is made then work may commence this afternoon on the water element of the machine.


Day 9 - 11th September 
Good use was made of yesterday's natural light to consolidate the photographic record of the project.

Work has now started on the water driving mechanism, which is a mixture of original parts and 20th century replacements. Two wheels were discovered to be binding together, which when released should let the water effect run smoother and more freely. The 'modern' gearing ratio is also affecting the speed of the 'flow'.

The current starting device is also a 20th century alteration, but the original pieces - which would have involved a stop-start mechanism - have been discovered in the reserve collection box created during earlier restoration and will be returned to their rightful position. 

Today will see the removal of the water driving movement, the spring barrel of which has been modified at an early stage. The work it does now is nowhere near its capacity, and it would have also driven a 'rising sun' on the original canopy surround. 

We welcome a party of students from Stockton today, who are studying automata, and hope they will be encouraged to enter the world of mechanical conservation.


Day 10 - 12th September 
The water driving movement has now been taken apart, reinforcing the fact that it was this part of the mechanism which drove former ancillary adornments such as the rising sun on the surrounding canopy.

As the canopy (now missing) was probably a later addition, more power was added to the movement. This later work is of good quality, but not first rate like the original.

Work will now begin on removing both springs from the movement, checking them for signs of cracking. They will then be cleaned and lubricated.

Emma has completed her survey of the track on which the fish appear to swim. This indicates that there was a lot more to the front element of the automaton than we see today. Although there are only seven fish, there is evidence of a further twelve ornaments, which could possibly have been reeds for the fish to hide in. This would definitely have added to the theatre of the performance. There are little pins showing where to put the fish, so Matthew will relocate them in those spots during reassembly.

Today is Emma's last day. On Monday we welcome a further specialist, Karen Barker, to the team. Read More

Week 3

Day 11 - 15th September 
On Saturday the actor and radio presenter Nicholas Parsons, who is giving a series of talks in the area, took up an invitation to visit The Bowes Museum with his wife. He was particularly fascinated to view the mechanisms of The Silver Swan as he has an interest in restoring grandfather clocks. 

Today we welcome conservator Karen Barker to work alongside specialist horologist Matthew Read. Karen will be keeping detailed records of the project, beginning with a look at the 113 rings which make up the Swan's neck feathers. She will conduct a detailed inventory of them before commencing a condition report on each. This will identify those in need of repair and strengthening.

We have previously reaped the benefit of Karen's skills at the Museum. Her earlier work on the collections has included the restoration of Art Deco chandeliers, a model lead mine and some Chelsea paste porcelain. 

Karen also hopes to take a look at the 'bath tub' in which the Swan originally sat. Again she will prepare a condition report, looking in particular at the corrosion on the copper structure.


Day 12 - 16th September 
Yesterday we welcomed Karen Barker, a metals specialist, to the team.

After an initial examination Karen has already begun proposing and carrying out treatment on the 113 silver rings which make up the Swan's neck. Following tests carried out she has started to clean off the old lacquer and the 40 year build up of oil with acetone, more familiarly known as a constituent of nail polish remover.

The neck rings are showing signs of stress fractures - some much worse than others - which will have to be addressed if the Swan is to continue to operate on a regular basis. The question of how to impede tarnishing without re-lacquering will also be up for debate.

Today Karen will begin transferring the findings to computer spreadsheets, as keeping the documentation up to date is an extremely important part of the project.

This morning Matthew will finish working on the water driving mechanism. Later today he hopes to start on the mechanism which throws the fish forward. It has been assembled incorrectly in the past and he will need to figure out how it should be put back in its intended place.


Day 13 - 17th September 
Matthew has removed the fish cam and lever - the mechanism which operates the motion of the fish as they 'swim' on the rotating glass rods forming the water effect.

Although relatively small they play a large role in the overall running of the Swan by acting as a shock absorber. Matthew will investigate the repositioning of these with a view to reinstating them to allow the fish to begin their performance by swimming forwards rather than backwards, as happens at present.

Documentation relating to the glass rods, and the silver rings which make up the Swan's neck, continues today. This accurate recording is a necessary and vital part of the project. Work is ongoing to remove old lacquer from the neck rings. At the moment the lacquer is very patchy, which is triggering corrosion on the exposed parts.

Once the lacquer has been removed Karen will wash the rings clean. Rather than renewing the lacquer, which would have the effect of restricting the neck movement of the Swan when the rings are replaced, she will treat them with a special wax.

This process is not as long lasting as lacquering and will need repeating every five to ten years, but will be a fairly straightforward job as the neck rings can be removed without dismantling the whole Swan.


Day 14 - 18th September 
Yesterday saw the taking apart and documenting of the fish mechanism, which is now ready for cleaning.

Today work continues on the silver rings which make up the Swan's neck. Karen has resumed her task of removing the old lacquer from each seperate ring, and now she is able to look at them in fine detail, they are showing serious wear and corrosion.

Once the lacquer has been removed from the 113 rings - a painstaking and time consuming process - Karen will need to decide a course of treatment to prevent further wear and tear.


Day 15 - 19 September

Yesterday Karen managed to clean 31 of the 113 silver rings which make up the Swan's neck. A painstaking and time consuming process.

Lacquer needs to be removed from the rings. Today, Karen is working on a solution that will speed the normal 2 hour process up.

Alongside this work she will carry on with documenting the whole project, which is now in its third week. Keeping an accurate record of the conservation, which includes the labelling of over 1,000 pieces, is vital.

Read More

Week 4

Day 16 - 22 September

To date the fish cam has been dismantled and this week is being cleaned and photographed. This is a relatively simple mechanism and is in amazingly good condition with most of its original parts. These comprise the tracks on which the fish sit, mounts, rollers, levers and the cam. 

During the dismantling process various interesting discoveries have been made. Four of the seven rollers have another roller attached; one supposition from this is that four of the seven fish swam in an opposite direction to the rest.

Also, there are more screw holes than fish on the tracks; it is possible that there may have been more attachments, perhaps more fish or ornaments in the form of flowers or reeds. 

On Friday Karen was looking for a quicker solution to clean the Silver neck rings, unfortunately this is not possible and so the neck rings will be given a basic clean until a later date.


Day 17 - 23 September
Yesterday a third of the fish cam was cleaned. This is the best preserved part of the whole object. Matthew has recognized that the mechanism appears never to have been taken apart therefore it is possibly untouched since the 1770s when it was made. 

Meanwhile Karen will carry on with documenting the whole project, which is now in its fourth week. Keeping an accurate record of the conservation, which includes the labelling of over 1,000 pieces, is vital.

It has been decided that in the third week in October, the removal of the main springs, which allow the Silver Swans neck to move, will
take place at Durham University.


Day 18 - 24 September
Yesterday Matthew finished cleaning the fish cam. He is now looking to take apart the modern stop-start mechanism and accessible parts of the main driving system. Matthew will be also making a plan of how the cam, fish and neck work.

Meanwhile Karen is documenting the whole process and packing up the spare silver, i.e. leaves, for long term storage.


Day 19 - 25 September
Yesterday every piece of the main driving movement apart from neck was removed, photographed and measured. The neck will be dismantled next Wednesday.

Today Matthew will clean the mechanism and Karen will keep documenting. Miles Campbell who is here for today only will survey the 1970’s frame that the Silver Swan sits on at present.


Day 20 - 26 September
Yesterday, Miles Campbell surveyed the frame that the Silver Swan sits on, Matthew cleaned the head and neck operating mechanism and Karen photographed and documented them.

Today will see the cleaning of the remaining 76 Silver neck rings by Karen which is a very time consuming job.  Read More

Week 5

Day 27 - 7 October
Yesterday saw the removal of the main driving movement which allows the head, neck and fish to operate. 

Matthew was able to dismantle ‘the brain’ of the object and remove all the cams that are piled on top of one another within it. The cams are the pieces that enable the different movements, from the nodding of the head to the arching of the neck. 

The most time consuming job was the removal of the zig zag cam. This is the part that rotates the neck. Once all the pieces were eliminated Matthew discovered that there are at least twice as many holes piercing the cam than are in use. He has found that this part is hollow rather than solid and so when last washed water seeped through the holes, creating a sludge inside which will have to be cleaned.

Today, Matthew and Karen will start to clean and photograph the 50 parts plus screws that make up the main driving movement.


Day 28 - 8 October
Yesterday Matthew and Karen cleaned and documented most of the parts of the ‘brain’ that was dismantled from the main driving movement on Monday.

The main plate of the zig zag cam which operated the Swan’s neck was taken apart and as suspected was full of sludge accumulated since the 1960’s restoration project.

Today will see the rest of the parts cleaned. Matthew will then move onto dissembling the main movement, which will allow for the first ever look at the Springs. 


Day 29 & 30 - 9 & 10 October

The conservators are continuing to clean the main driving movement for the neck. This comprises plates and pillars which form the outer frame, with the spring barrels inside.

The frame is a bespoke piece made specifically for the mechanism and one of the largest of its type. It is however, no thicker than a good quality bracket clock of the period though the makers made the bearing surface wider by work-hardening the plate in order to add strength to support the weight it is carrying. A bracket at one end is evidence of a subframe having been added, possibly because during the process of testing the mechanism, it was discovered that it was not powerful enough and an additional spring barrel had to be added. There is evidence on the plates at either side of the frame that the barrel and fusee were originally located in the wrong place – plugged holes show where they were first placed. 

The two barrels each contain two springs. These are about 1mm thick making them each about 20 times stronger than a domestic bracket clock of this period – these are the real powerhouse of the mechanism and capable of creating an immense drive. 

How these springs are extracted from the barrels is going to demand Matthew’s most creative ingenuity. As he says, dealing with these is going to take him from the realms of clock-making and into engineering! Read More

Week 6

Day 27 - 7 October
Yesterday saw the removal of the main driving movement which allows the head, neck and fish to operate. 

Matthew was able to dismantle ‘the brain’ of the object and remove all the cams that are piled on top of one another within it. The cams are the pieces that enable the different movements, from the nodding of the head to the arching of the neck. 

The most time consuming job was the removal of the zig zag cam. This is the part that rotates the neck. Once all the pieces were eliminated Matthew discovered that there are at least twice as many holes piercing the cam than are in use. He has found that this part is hollow rather than solid and so when last washed water seeped through the holes, creating a sludge inside which will have to be cleaned.

Today, Matthew and Karen will start to clean and photograph the 50 parts plus screws that make up the main driving movement.


Day 28 - 8 October
Yesterday Matthew and Karen cleaned and documented most of the parts of the ‘brain’ that was dismantled from the main driving movement on Monday.

The main plate of the zig zag cam which operated the Swan’s neck was taken apart and as suspected was full of sludge accumulated since the 1960’s restoration project.

Today will see the rest of the parts cleaned. Matthew will then move onto dissembling the main movement, which will allow for the first ever look at the Springs. 


Day 29 & 30 - 9 & 10 October

The conservators are continuing to clean the main driving movement for the neck. This comprises plates and pillars which form the outer frame, with the spring barrels inside.

The frame is a bespoke piece made specifically for the mechanism and one of the largest of its type. It is however, no thicker than a good quality bracket clock of the period though the makers made the bearing surface wider by work-hardening the plate in order to add strength to support the weight it is carrying. A bracket at one end is evidence of a subframe having been added, possibly because during the process of testing the mechanism, it was discovered that it was not powerful enough and an additional spring barrel had to be added. There is evidence on the plates at either side of the frame that the barrel and fusee were originally located in the wrong place – plugged holes show where they were first placed. 

The two barrels each contain two springs. These are about 1mm thick making them each about 20 times stronger than a domestic bracket clock of this period – these are the real powerhouse of the mechanism and capable of creating an immense drive. 

How these springs are extracted from the barrels is going to demand Matthew’s most creative ingenuity. As he says, dealing with these is going to take him from the realms of clock-making and into engineering! Read More

Week 7

Day 32 - 14 October

Yesterday the neck structure was removed. This consists of lever followers connected to the head and neck of the Swan by 5 fusee chains of varying thicknesses. These chains are the originals and were designed 100 years before the Victorian period. Children of the ages 7,8, 9 and young mothers were the ones who made these by hand.

The chains run over a series of rollers within the neck and are connected to the operation of the lower neck, upper neck, nodding of the head, movement of the fish in the Swan’s mouth and lower part of its bill.

The design of this part of the machine has a different feel to it than the rest of the object, it has an ingenious design and is beautifully executed and therefore maybe the work of Merlin.

Merlin, a celebrated inventor of the time was one of the men commissioned by James Cox to help with the making of the object.


Day 33 - 15 October
Last night the outer vertebrae were left to soak in a white spirit atmosphere to soften the oil residue.

Today Matthew and Karen will wash all these parts and document them.

This afternoon the specialist conservators will move on to unpinning the head and dismantling the rollers. Matthew is not quite sure if removing the pins between the “inner vertebrae” will be sensible is it could be a case of “the cure being worse than the disease”. It maybe decided to clean the structure as a whole.


Day 34 - 16 October
Yesterday the “inner vertebrae” were dismantled for the first time in a century. Matthew found that the pins he was questioning are easily removable and so he can thoroughly clean each link. The good craftsmanship and beautiful work which was required to make this part of the neck is a joy to see. When it was originally created it would have taken one man around a month to make as each piece had to be filed to perfection.

The chains are of equally fine workmanship. The finest chain has 170 links and an estimated 700 pieces riveted together. These will have been made by very small hands, possibly by young mothers and their children.

And finally it has been noted how much thicker the current neck spring is than the original one made in the 18th century. It may be possible in future to make a new neck spring which is more a replica of the earlier version than its 1970’s replacement. The later version does not allow the head to bend right down towards the fish as it should, and is not as flexible.


Day 35 - 17 October
Yesterday saw the whole of the “inner vertebrae” being taken apart. There are 30 links and each consists of a link with a roller frame, 2 large rollers for the neck operating chains, 2 small rollers so the bill and fish inside its mouth can move and 3 pins to hold it together.

Today will see the intensive cleaning and documentation of each piece. Read More

Week 8

Day 36 - 20 October 
On Friday most of the “inner vertebrae” was cleaned with just a few pieces left to finish. Today will see the completion of the rest of these parts. Matthew has decided it will be best to put the complicated neck structure back together straight away instead of leaving it apart like the rest of the Swan.

Karen has started to take the main frame apart, what she manages to dismantle by the end of the day will be soaked overnight ready for cleaning tomorrow. Tomorrow is a big day for the Swan as Matthew will be delivering the main springs to Durham University where they will be taken apart.

Karen’s next task is making sure that all of the pieces are in numerical order so that the reassembly process will go as smoothly as possible.


Day 37 - 21 October
The Swan’s neck movement is driven by four huge springs, each about 1mm thick which means that the power they generate is about 80 times more powerful than a domestic bracket clock of the same period. Two springs are each contained within a spring barrel and held in place by a spring arbor (a central rod with two clips on). The last time that these were seen and inspected was during the restoration of the 1970s by Mr Tom Bryson Smith. This means that they have also not been lubricated since then. 

Today is a very important day and one we have been anticipating for the last few weeks. Matthew is taking the two main springs to Durham University so that the springs can be removed from the spring barrel. On first sight, the springs look to be in reasonable condition but without further investigation we will not know properly. What is clear is that they and the spring arbor are dried out and require lubrication with oil. They will also require cleaning to remove old and stale oil.

They have to be removed from the spring barrel with care. To do this, Matthew has designed a wooden jig which will act as a holder and support for the barrel, holding it firm while other purpose made tools will be made to wind the springs thereby enabling them to be removed from the barrel.

There are wear marks on the main barrel which have been caused by the steel wire which is attached to move all the pieces, added in the 1970s. The original would have been made by animal gut and we will investigate replacing the wire cable with gut, though the length and diameter required, 4 meters at 4.2mm thick, is not a standard size and will require a lengthy drying process at the manufacturers.


Day 38 - 22 October

The trip to Durham University Engineering Department yesterday went really well. 6 Springs were removed. The 4 which operate the neck movement appear to be 19th century, replacing the originals. 1 of the springs operating the water movement also appears to be 19th century, but the other is a later edition possibly 1970’s. All were removed from their barrels with the help of some very impressive machinery. Matthew and Ray Mand managed to achieve this by mid afternoon. After further inspection the springs are in good condition but brittle, indicating they are a little ‘tired’. There is still a lot of power in them allowing them to carry on working for a long time yet.

2 of the 6 springs are completely dried out but all will need to be cleaned and re-lubricated. This will allow the Arbor to work properly and stop the wearing of the bearing.

When Matthew arrived back from Durham he started to put the neck back together.

Today he will focus on dismantling the Swan’s head and documenting it. Karen is still busy with the time consuming process of cleaning the frame. On the pieces that are finished marks can be seen that were made 235 years ago when it was first made.


Day 39 - 23 October
Yesterday Matthew put together the Swan’s “inner vertebrae”.  Their appearance is surprisingly modern, though clearly the result of an experimental mind of the eighteenth century and not something that could easily be made today, because of the lack of skills and independent labour outside of the commercial and industrial sector.

He then dismantled the Swan’s head and photographed the parts. These are typically recognisable as having been created by competent eighteenth century watchmakers and it is the skill and intricacy with which these have been executed that is striking. For example the “lazy tongs” which allows the fish to move in and out of the mouth is a delightful piece of engineering.

The work that has gone into the Swan’s neck and head mechanism never ceases to amaze. In the design of this, John Joseph Merlin's genius is evident. It is easy to see how he went on to invent roller skates and other ingenious mechanisms that amazed and delighted his contemporaries and confirmed his place as one of the most eccentric and imaginative inventive minds of his day. 


Day 40 - 24 October
Yesterday Matthew started to reassemble the head mechanism. He noticed that the mounting block the fish sits on is wearing slightly. Some time in the near future this problem will need to be addressed, allowing the fish mechanism to operate for many years to come.

Karen is still hard at work cleaning the frame that the Swan sits on.

Today will see the work continuing on the head and neck. Read More

Week 9

Day 41 - 27 October
At the end of last week Matthew started to reassemble the head mechanism. He noticed that the mounting block the fish sits on is wearing slightly. Some time in the near future this problem will need to be addressed, allowing the fish mechanism to operate for many years to come.

Karen is still hard at work cleaning the frame that the Swan sits on.

Today will see work continuing on the head and neck and the start of the cleaning process of the springs.


Day 42 - 28 October
Yesterday the reassembling of the head was completed and the fish repaired so that the movement in and out of the Swan’s mouth works a lot better.

Today, Matthew will continue to clean the springs so that they are prepared, ready for another trip to Durham University tomorrow where they will be inserted back into their barrels. He will also work on the reflective backing plate, which allows the light to shine through the glass rods. First of all is the creation of the card templates which will be cut out at Durham tomorrow. These will then help to produce the brass plate which a silver leafier will cover and in conjunction with the glass rods will give the perception of the water sparkling.


Day 43 - 29 October

Today Matthew is taking another trip to Durham this time to replace the Springs which were cleaned yesterday back into the main barrels. Whilst he is at Durham University he will be taking advantage of their facilities and cutting out the reflective backing plate template.

Whilst Matthew is away Karen is preparing the surface of the original 18th century frame by removing the silver paint so that gilding will replace it. All but one part of the frame will be stripped, this is so that in future there is evidence of what has been used in the past and what is going to be used. Once this has been completed she will then clean the modern 20th century frame.


Day 44 - 30 October
Yesterday was a very successful day at Durham University. The springs were placed back inside the barrels and the reflective backing template was cut out ready for the production of the brass one.

Today you will be able to hear Matthew explain the progress of the Silver Swan Conservation Project before he starts reassembling it next week. 

We are pleased to welcome representatives of The British Horological Institute at the lecture today.


Day 45 - 31 October
Today Matthew and Karen will make sure all materials and tools are in place for next weeks reassembling. All parts will be checked to make sure they are in the correct order so that everything goes quickly and smoothly.

Roger Smith, who is researching the Swan's history , is visiting to study the disassembled Swan to assist his research.

Ken Robinson, a ceramics conservator who is cleaning the glass rods, is coming to see Matthew to discuss making some new collets for the rods. Read More

Week 10

Day 46 - 3 November
For the next two weeks Miles Campbell, a student from West Dean College, will be assisting Matthew and Karen in assembling the Silver Swan mechanism. 

Today, he and Karen will reassemble the 18th century frame within the 20th century one. They will also photograph the 18th century frame in the 'bathtub', within which it would originally have been supported. The 'bathtub' was abandoned after the 1970s restoration, so few people now remember seeing it this way.

Miles will then start the task of primarily fitting the reflective backing plates in brass.

Matthew will complete the rebuilding of the neck structure allowing it to be fitted to the frame tomorrow.


Day 47 - 4 November
Today we welcome Chris Jackson, who is filming the project for the BBC Inside Out programme.

Yesterday was a very busy day, as reassembly of the Swan began. However, it was a day when everything clicked and started to come together, with much progress made.

Matthew assembled the Swan’s neck and was delighted that all the cams and delicate chains are fully functional after their cleaning. In buoyant mood he then began work on putting back together the ‘waterworks’ mechanism, which was also completed.

Miles and Karen had a ‘storming’ day of their own in fully reassembling the 18th Century frame.

Today is a bit of a melting pot, with photography and documentation of the reassembly continuing. Karen will record the old ‘spare parts’ which were kept in storage from earlier conservation work.


Day 48 - 5 November
Yesterday the main movement was reassembled and along with this the neck was attached.

Today Karen will continue labelling the reserve collection of objects associated with the Swan, that has built up over the years from parts that have been replaced or mended.

Miles is continuing work on the reflective backing sheets, making sure they are filed to fit perfectly.

While the reassembly process is taking place all the documentation needs to be checked. During the dissembling of the Swan more and more information was gathered and so it may be that some of the information will need developing further for future use.

Matthew will insert the Cam and Levers back into the correct position and rebuild the fish track.


Day 49 - 6 November
Yesterday Matthew concentrated on assembling the Cam so that it works properly. He also welcomed Richard Higgins, another established clockmaker. He has confirmed Matthew’s conclusion that the 'bath tub' was a very significant part of the Silver Swan originally, just as important as the neck structure. He repeated a theory that has already been considered, that the tub, which held the mechanism, did actually float, surrounded by water, in a much bigger structure, possibly what is referred to as the 'font' in early descriptions of the Swan. There is clearly more research to do on this structure as it is raising more questions than answers at present.

Today Miles will continue to work on shaping and filing the reflective backing plates to a perfect fit while Karen is persisting with the documentation of the reserve collection of Swan pieces.

Matthew will fit the fish mechanism today along with the 7 fish. 


Day 50 - 7 November
The automaton has been fully dismantled and the ugly duckling is now in the process of being returned to a beautiful Swan. While the start of the reassembly began brilliantly a technical discovery was uncovered yesterday which relates to the previous dismantling project in the 1970s when the track which determines the movement of the head and neck, was redesigned. This means that we cannot correct the jerky movement of the head. It is also causing the cam to strain on the levers. While it will not hold up the reassembly at this stage, it has been decided that we should, at some time in the near future, correct this.

It is intended to replace the metal rope with gut line, which would have originally been used. However, due to the time required to manufacture this, a temporary measure will be taken in the form of a synthetic material. This is preferable to the metal rope which is fraying and causing abrasions on the surface of the barrel. The gut line will be fitted at a later date.

Matthew will fit the fish mechanism today along with the 7 fish. They will be assembled as they were originally, where four will move forward as three move back, so they will appear to be much more active than before. Read More

Week 11

Day 51 - 10 November
The automaton is beginning to resemble a Swan again, now that the skeleton of the head and neck is back in place.

The music movement has been reinstalled and will now play 8 tunes. Before it was put back the barrel was rolled over carbon paper to give an impression which will now be transcribed into a musical score, enabling the tunes to be played on a piano.

The ongoing problem with the music continuing after the performance has stopped has also been rectified.

After much painstaking investigation by Miles the fish are to be reinstated in their original ‘sporting about’ manner. He has worked out how to bring the auxiliary rollers back into use to allow the fish to swim in different directions, so that when the Swan tries to grab them they hastily retreat.

Meanwhile, Karen continues her work on the reserve collection of pieces to determine which are 18th Century and which are later adaptations. These will then be measured, photographed and catalogued.

If all goes to plan, the team will look to put the water movement back in place today.


Day 52 - 11 November 2008
Yesterday saw the water movement installed. When this part was being dismantled the two wheels were discovered to be bound together. These have now been restored and so the water effect will run smoother and more freely.

Today Matthew and Miles will work on fitting the reflective backing plates with shims underneath – little slithers of metal. This is so that the plates sit level. 

Karen is documenting the spare and damaged glass rods in preparation for Ken Robinson, Glass and Ceramics specialist arriving tomorrow. He will be bringing the sparkling glass rods back which he has been cleaning and removing the old oil from at his workshop.

Today we welcomed the BBC News Crew. They have filmed the Swan during its reassembly process and it can be viewed tomorrow on Breakfast News, followed by News 24 and Look North.


Day 53 & 54- 12 & 13 November 2008
The glass rods have been cleaned and repaired off-site over the last three months by Ken Robinson, a glass and ceramics conservator.

Ken has had the unenviable task of cleaning the insides of the rods to remove grease and oil which has seeped in. He has done this by using thin brass rods with cotton wool buds attached, but as the glass rods are also square internally this has made the task more difficult, especially reaching dirt and oil in the internal corners. The brass rods with their cotton wool plugs are continually passed through the glass rod until the swab shows no sign of dirt.

Each glass rod has a brass collet at either end. Ken has had to remove these in order to clean the inside of the rod. This has been no easy task; almost every conceivable method of fixing has been used to secure the collets onto the rods – shellac, plaster of paris, pitch, silicon which requires considerable ingenuity, time and patience to remove them and care not to break the glass rod. A quote from Ken himself illustrates the difficulties he has encountered: Many of the glass rods were only just located in the collet, some were held in position by silicon and not in the collet at all (broken in the past and the glass fragment inside the collet missing)…The black pitch type material used in the past was heated, applied to the collet and the rod quickly located into the collet. The pitch set hard on cooling; I’m pretty sure some of the glass was damaged through thermal shock at the time… 

Because of these difficulties, the rods after repair may differ very slightly from their original length; only a few millimetres’ difference is enough to make refitting them on their brackets onto the new brass backing plate, a trickier job.

Matthew and Ken will, on Wednesday and Thursday, lay the rods in their position onto the backing plate and measure up where the bracket holes need to be drilled. They will not fix them yet, not before the leafer has coated the backing plate with a layer of palladium leaf next week.


Day 55 - 14 November 2008
Over the last two days Matthew and Ken have been working with the glass rods. Ken brought them back to the Museum on Wednesday along with the sealing wax (shellac), pitch and a host of other later adhesives which he had removed to make them sparkle again. The end caps have now been secured by a modern reversible adhesive. After this work had taken place and they were placed on the new backing plates that Miles has been working on, it was discovered that they are now different lengths than previously.

Today the 20th century mounting brackets will be moved, which fits in with the conservation remit, and new backing plates will have to be produced starting from the beginning. Because of this setback Matthew and Karen will be working over the weekend to fit the new wire on the Cam and making sure as much has been reassembled as possible before the leafer arrives next week. He will be coating the brass backing plates with palladium leaf to give them an appropriate finish. Read More

Week 12

Day 56 - 17 November
Matthew, Miles and Karen worked extremely hard over the weekend, dissembling and reassembling the whole of the back of the Swan mechanism again so that the temporary synthetic line could be added. They have also produced a replacement set of brass backing plates.

Once the neck was fully replaced Matthew was not happy with the movement. This resulted in them taking the neck apart and washing the Museum wax off and so allowing a smoother sequence.

Today will see the final drilling and placing of the backing plates in preparation for the leafer who will be here tomorrow and Wednesday.


Day 57 - 18 November
Today we welcome gilder and frame conservator Jock Hopson, who will be oil gilding the brass backing plate with palladium leaf.

He will apply an oil size - comprising linseed oil and a drying agent - as a contact adhesive and when touch dry will apply the palladium.

Palladium, which is the same price as gold, has been chosen for its non-tarnishing properties; unlike silver it will not go black. 

The backing plate will reflect the sparkle of the newly cleaned twisted glass rods which make up the water movement.

Jock is expected to take two days to complete the work.


Day 58 - 19 November

Today will see Jock finish the palladium leafing of the reflective backing plates.

Yesterday saw the rearing of a small setback. The change in temperature in the galleries is affecting the drying time of the oil gilding. In controlled environments the normal drying time is 3 hours because it is colder in the galleries in the morning it is taking longer, whereas in the afternoon when it is a lot warmer it takes a shorter amount of time.

Another stumbling block that Jock has overcome is that the backing plates are so cold that the oil size (type of glue that sticks the palladium onto the plate) was chilling. He is using a hairdryer to warm the backing plates up to allow a smooth even surface.


Day 59 - 20 November
Yesterday Jock finished covering the reflective backing plates with palladium leafing.

This has created quite a bit of mess. Today Karen will be making sure all particles that have fallen into the mechanism and around the frame are removed.

She will also be altering the adapter plates for the new wheel attachments on the 20th century frame and attaching the final parts such as the winding handle.


Day 60 - 21 November
Yesterday Karen was able to remove all the loose palladium. The wheels for the 20th century frame were prepared ready to be fitted today.

The main part of today is going to be reinstating the 101 silver leaves which were originally on the bath tub when the swan was first designed. They are being returned to the frame where they have been since around 1972. Read More

Week 13

Day 61 - 24 November
On Friday, Karen managed to reassemble all 101 silver leaves onto the 20th century frame. Heavy duty rubber wheels have also been fitted to the frame so that the mechanism has a smoother ride when it is moved.

The palladium used to cover the reflective backing plates has a duller finish than silver . This is more in keeping with an eighteenth century finish and it also creates a desired watery effect. Palladium was chosen instead of silver because it is a noble metal, and so stable. Also, silver would start to tarnish almost immediately whereas the palladium will stay as it is indefinitely apart from small unavoidable repairs.

Today will see Matthew and Ken replace the glass rods. This is something of a challenge in one day but the finished effect, now that the rods have been cleaned, will be stunning. Karen will document this entire process.


Day 62 - 25 November
Yesterday Matthew and Ken replaced the glass rods at the front of the mechanism. Each glass rod has got an individual bracket which has to be adjusted to fit in the correct stations on the new backing plates.

Today Matthew and Karen will continue working on replacing the remaining glass rods at the back of the mechanism.


Day 63 - 26 November
Yesterday Matthew and Karen managed to finish assembling ¾ of the glass rods. Each cap has to be heated up and centralised so that the bearings run concentrically.

Today they will finish this time consuming task and test all the rods are working smoothly in preparation for tomorrow night’s performance at the Silver Swan Soirée.


Day 64 - 27 November
Yesterday all remaining glass rods were assembled and tested to make sure they work accordingly. The body was replaced and the Silver Swan is looking as glamorous as ever.

Today sees the end of the major conservation project. Being his final day, Matthew will run some final tests to make sure all is well before attaching the fish. Tonight’s performance (see reception for details) will give an exclusive opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the project coupled with its first performance to an audience since the overhaul.

Over the next 2 to 3 months Karen will observe the Silver Swan for snagging faults and provide solutions to allow the mechanism to run smoothly.

The Bowes Museum would like to say a massive thank you to Matthew, Karen, Ken, Emma and Miles for all their hard work. Read More