In an Object of the Week special, we feature some stunning images of one of the best-known exhibits in any North-East museum. Alison White explains the story behind Bowes Museum's famous Silver Swan.

THE Silver Swan is the emblem of The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and is our most well-known object.

It’s a full size replica of a female mute swan and its lifelike look and movement comes from the fact the Silversmiths who created it would have modelled it from a real swan that they had on a workbench.

John Joseph Merlin, who’s often thought to have invented roller skates and whose portrait by Gainsborough hangs nearby, is believed to have created the mechanisms inside the swan.

It has 700 major components, excluding screws and fixings, with several thousand in its whole. It also has the same mechanism inside as that used in analytical engines, which were the forerunners of computers.

What you see today is very different to how The Silver Swan looked when it was made – originally it sat in a bath that can be seen in the silver and metals gallery and that it was inside a canopy that was 18 feet high, as seen below.

The Northern Echo:

Image © Stephen Conlin 2009, based on the advice of scholars and curators. Commissioned by Country Life Magazine

It was first recorded in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer.

John and Joséphine saw her in a jewellers in Paris and after negotiation bought her for £200, which so the story goes was 10 per cent of the original asking price. She is solid silver, 25 – 30 kilos in weight, with 99 silver leaves, 113 silver rings in her neck and 141 glass rods. It plays six different tunes and each individual performance lasts just 42 seconds.

It was originally displayed in the toy gallery and during the 1960s, when the swan was in reception, you could put a sixpence in a slot and it would play for you.

The Northern Echo:

Automatons were very popular in the 1700s and many were bought by the Qianlong Emperors of Beijing in what became known as the Sing Song Trade due to the fact the automatons were musical and were traded for tea, silks and ceramics.

However that tailed off when the Emperor decided that he didn’t want to be seen as frivolous by his subjects, so by the time The Bowes Museum’s Silver Swan was made, it was already out of fashion.