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Workshop of James Cox - Silver Swan

Silver Swan

Workshop of James Cox

Date: circa 1773

Place Made: England

Materials & Techniques: Mechanical swan - silver with glass and metal fittings

Dimensions: Height 80 cm 

Accession Number: The Bowes Museum, X. 4653

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An image of the mechanical parts of the swan

This is a 3 dimensional (3D) swan made of silver. The swan contains clockwork inside it and needs winding up in order to make it work. The swan is made of solid silver that hides the clockwork mechanism. The casing of clockwork is mainly made of brass. The silver swan sits on glass rods that glitter like water.

The outside of the swan is 'chased' silver. This type of silver is 'worked' or shaped by hand using tools. As the underneath of the swan is not on display this is left rough.

A close-up of the swans head

James Cox, a London dealer of silverwork, made the outside of the swan. The inside workings of the swan were made by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor. The Museum thinks the swan was made around 1773. As the swan is very old and used regularly, it is very fragile. The most fragile part of the swan is its neck where the silver has snapped on two occasions. Most of the 200 mechanisms for the clockwork can be found here.



Teachers' Information

When the mechanism of the silver swan is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to see a fish in the water below and bends back to catch it. It swallows the fish as the music stops and returns to its start position.

The piece contains 8 different tunes. Cams control the actions of the swan and fish and one in the form of a track on the rim of a drum, travels through the neck. A chain passing upwards through the rings, which form the neck, controls the elevation and depression of the neck. A spring and a ‘lazy tong’ mechanism eject the concealed fish from its beak.

The silver swan was described in Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. John Bowes purchased it for 5000 francs (£200) in 1872. Other pieces by James Cox do exist. Perhaps the most famous of these is the gold Peacock Clock, which can be found in the Hermitage Museum, Russia.


1. Ask the pupils to investigate where silver comes from. How do we ‘extract’ it so that it can be used?

2. How would a silver object be made today and how would this compare to how the swan was made?

3. The mechanism of the swan uses cams. Pupils could investigate how cams work as part of a Design and Technology project and then design their own animal with moving parts.