When I was researching and writing my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, I planned a scene with an automaton, and vaguely recalled having seen one in an article about a clockwork swan on display at the Bowes Museum.
To describe the swan in words ~ though you really need to watch the film embedded above into this post to appreciate its beauty ~ it appears to float upon a stream made of rows of twisted glass rods. When the mechanism is wound up, music plays and the rods begin to rotate as little sparkling silver fish swim through the ‘water’. The swan lowers its head to the left and right while seeming to preen its feathers, before it picks up and swallows one fish, at which point the music stops, and the swan returns to its upright position again.
It truly is a wonder, and although I eventually wrote about a sinister clockwork mermaid, the silver swan has continued to hold a fascination for me. So, when I recently came to read Peter Carey’s novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in which the swan plays a central part, I decided to look more closely at the reality behind the fiction - and in doing so discovered the intriguing human story at its heart.
The swan was originally created by John Joseph Merlin, and is first recorded as being displayed back in 1774, in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer.
Almost a century later, in 1872, the wealthy collectors, John and Josephine Bowes, paid £200 (around £80,000 in today’s money) to purchase the swan from a Parisian jeweller, having both been enchanted after seeing the object on display at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867.
At the same exhibition it was viewed by the American writer, Mark Twain, who wrote -
‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'
Today, you can go and see the swan at the Bowes Museum - where John and Josephine amassed their marvellous collection of furniture, art, and automata.
But who were this discerning couple? Well, their story is as alluring as the silver swan itself.
Josephine Benoite Coffin-Chevalie was the daughter of a French clockmaker who grew up to be an actress. In 1847, she met John Bowes, the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore.
John was a racy aristocrat, active in the Parisian Demi-monde, where he first came to meet his future wife when she performed at the Theatre des Varietes; the theatre that he’d purchased as a gift for another mistress.
Chateau du Barry - painted by Josephine Bowes.
Josephine had a wonderful eye for art. She and John bought several works for the collection at Bowes, including work by El Greco, Goya, Canaletto, and Fantin-Latour
He was clearly a very generous man when it came to the women who he loved. For Josephine, who he nicknamed Puss, he bought the Chateau du Barry near Paris which had once been home to a mistress of Louis XV. However the pair also visited John’s English home in County Durham, hoping to improve the lives of the farmers and miners who worked around by creating a permanent display of art and culture for their use.
Sadly, Josephine died at 48, before she’d really had the time to enjoy their home and its treasures. She was childless, and it was said that she had suffered from lung disease. But it is also likely that she and John had syphilis, both having enjoyed an adventurous youth.
Tragically, John’s second wife, who was very jealous of the first, set about expunging her memory, and that included destroying almost all of the letters she’d written to John - of which there was many hundreds, as they wrote to each other every day. It is thought that if she could have done the second wife would have prevented the museum from ever opening. But open it did in 1885, seven years after John had also died.
An exhibition about Josephine’s life, A Woman of Taste and Influence, is currently on show at the Bowes Museum, and continues until July 16, 2017.