Pray Silence for the Silver Swan


Last week I visited The Bowes Museum just an hour from Leeds up and off the A1. I’d been wanting to visit this place for about ten years. The notion of a francophile’s fantasy French chateau being constructed in the North of England just to house a stunning personal collection of the decorative arts had immediate appeal for me. Not least because I have my very own personal fantasy French chateau but sadly only in 1/12 scale.

the idyllic exterior of The Bowes Museum

On arrival we were duly impressed. I had tactically decided to visit on this day with the only close family member guaranteed not to get fed up with rooms of porcelain, textiles, costumes, silverware and furniture. Middle Daughter did not disappoint, and although she did have to move me on from a couple of rooms, this at least meant I had an overview of most of the collection. Because its true to say there is a lot to see, and it’s all quality stuff. A mini V&A, pretty much.

There was even one particular artefact which might, just might, surpass anything in the V&A, and I don’t say that lightly.

On arrival, the nice ticket lady handed us our tickets and said in a slightly excited undertone that “… the Silver Swan would be at 2 o’ clock.”

We were mystified. Middle Daughter asked what was the Silver Swan? “An automaton,” came the reverential response. I had to explain this to Middle Daughter, now counting myself as something of an expert on automata since my dismal efforts to make one earlier this year.

We were advised to show up early though for the show. It gets pretty crowded, does the audience for the Silver Swan. So at 1.50, we made our way to the room.

The atmosphere was electric. The Silver Swan was enclosed in its glass cage on its silver and crystal base, and remained motionless. As did the expectant audience. We hardly dared breath as the minutes ticked by.

I took a few photos of the audience taking photos, just to relieve the tension. I wondered what proportion of visitors would be viewing the spectacle through a lens? It’s odd these days how we view real life through the eye of the camera. Can a spectacle be satisfactorily experienced in the absence of a photo shoot?

I was reminded of a religious ceremony. We sat or knelt or bent forwards in anticipation of a divine vision. The silence was acute. I thought to myself “pray silence for the swan!”

And then The Man With The Key appeared and said just those words: Pray Silence For The Silver Swan.

And we waited. And saw. And lo, it was good. It was amazing, actually. Extraordinary. The lifelike movement of the neck as the bird dipped and rolled from side to side and plucked a fish from the water.

A collective sigh of appreciation as the performance ended.

Middle Daughter and I rushed to the interactive information screen to find out more. What I really wanted was a diagram of the cogs and levers. How on earth in such a narrow column do you effect lateral movement? But no such diagram exists.

In this age of technology and know how about pretty much everything, noone has produced a diagram of how it works.

Some things have to remain a mystery.


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