Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A clockwork Silver Swan - my visit to the wonderful Bowes Museum

A clockwork swan? Yes, a lifelike, life-sized beautiful silver swan that moves naturally. It was made in 1773 and is now in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham. It 'performs' daily at 2,00pm. I was there to see the spectacle on 3rd June, and if you read on, you can see (and hear) what that performance was like.

Barnard Castle, on the edge of the North Pennines, has a wonderful asset: The Bowes Museum. This is a large and elegant building - in the style of a grand French château - on the east side of the town, set in its own grounds, that houses an astonishingly sophisticated collection of exhibits. It's as if someone cherry-picked from the main London museums (especially the V&A) and popped the goods into this amazing place. It's not at all what you would expect to find in a rural part of County Durham.

Here's the exterior.


I wasn't going to visit it at first, even though urged to do so. The website told me that, even with an age concession lopping a useful £2 off the admission cost, it would hit my purse to the tune of £12.00. Ouch! But a dull, damp day lay ahead. It might be a great way to spend an afternoon. So I negotiated the revolving entrance doors and bought a ticket. The reception desk was computerised, and paying by phone was no problem whatever.

Although externally you might think this had once been someone's Country Seat, and only lately converted to use as a museum, it had in fact been conceived and built as a museum from the start, to showcase the best of a vast series of collections made over the years by a wealthy Victorian couple, John and Joséphine Bowes, seen here in this information panel about the paintings they sought for their museum:


The Museum opened to the public in 1892 and has been going strong ever since, although I confess that until this year I'd never heard of it. The Bowes family, incidentally, were not only rich landowners in County Durham but through marriage acquired estates in Scotland too. From the Scottish side of the family came the late Queen Mother, as these information panels in the museum explained:


I once met the Queen Mother, in 1978, but that's another story.

The entrance hall was most impressive. Here are views of this lofty space, with its columns and grand staircase.


Big mirrors helped!

I began with the ground floor, and worked upwards. I was clock-watching for the first half of my visit. I hadn't known in advance that there was a clockwork swan performing at 2.00pm, but having learned that at reception, I didn't want to miss it. 

The ground floor was mostly concerned with archaeological artifacts, toys, and sundry curiosities.


Archaeologically, there was an emphasis on the Roman occupation of the North-East. The toy collection was eclectic. There were some exceptionally fine dolls. Indeed, the faces of some of them were very lifelike, and not in an entirely comfortable way. The dolls looked too adult, and some seemed unhappy, worried or perplexed.


Look at that doll in the blue dress, back centre, in the last picture: she seems to possess an inner life of her own, a rather emotional one. She's just a bit too lifelike. And the two dolls in Red Indian attire, front left, look positively anguished, as if contemplating the burning of their homes (or indeed the massacre of their tribe) by the hated White Man, as he advanced relentlessly across their ancestral lands. 

I was never into dolls when young. I didn't want a 'baby' or 'child' of my own to hold in my arms, to fuss over, dress up, and play imaginary games with. As for adults wanting to collect these things, the reason escapes me. Is it the quality of the doll's faces and costumes? Who knows. They are all too close to ventriloquists' dummies, and I find those creepy - see my post The Laughing Sailor on 5th August 2016. They were undoubtedly brilliant dolls, in a museum context, but not my cup of tea. Give me good old Buzz Lightyear every time. He was part of the toy display too. I'd happily go to infinity and beyond in his company.


In the same room was this penny-farthing bicycle...


...but next to it was a glass cabinet containing a stuffed two-headed calf. Ugh. Totally bizarre! I felt sorry for this calf, and wondered how it had survived its birth (poor mum, too) and had then lived on. I took a photo, but ditched it later. If not quite horrible, this calf was at least grotesque to behold. You have to imagine two calves merged, the heads side by side, but the legs of the second calf sticking out from the otherwise fairly normal body of the first. Not a sight I'd have wanted to see if I were a child. It makes you wonder about the things Victorians considered suitable for public display. But that was an era in which paying money to gawp at circus freaks was normal, and disfigured persons of all kinds, many of them beggars, were everyday sights. I hope that the modern reaction when seeing the dire results of poverty, malnourishment and nil healthcare would universally be to take action and help the victim, and not pay to see them. (Too much to hope for, I dare say)

I next climbed that grand staircase to the upper floors, noting where the Swan Room was. I'll leave the Swan for a little longer, and first show a sample of the many other exhibits.

Mrs Bowes had been French, and her taste was reflected everywhere, in rooms furnished in Empire style, and in paintings of the Napoleonic dynasty.


But there were also rooms dealing with other styles, all showing off the organised clutter of a High Victorian lifestyle, with objects too fussy for modern tastes but all of the finest quality and made to last.


But much of the museum's space was devoted to displaying paintings, ceramics, furniture and costume, all of which were dear to my own heart. I overloaded on it all. Some shots of these things now.


In one of the upper front wings, just off from the ceramics section, I came across a quiet space that overlooked the front grounds. A peaceful spot to sit down and rest, if one needed a rest from all the things to see. 


You can just make out Fiona in the last shot, centre, parked in the driveway. The side windows had stained glass, showing women in Renaissance poses.


Did I mention paintings? There were some very fine ones, more than you might see in most municipal art galleries.


And, of course, the museum founders.


Three things left to show you. Up first, a special exhibition by artist Jonathan Yeo, concerned with the risks and social impact of cosmetic surgery. It was a series of pictures showing women being prepared for a variety of enhancements. Here are some of the face and breast surgery pictures:


I do wonder why the lady above wanted her face 'improved'.


It was easier to understand why some women might yearn for fuller breasts. Although personally I'd be very happy to have bumps as nice as those they thought inadequate! 


It was, as intended, very thought-provoking. A few years ago, I was pretty dissatisfied with my big nose, and if funds hadn't got dangerously low, I might have seriously looked into having it reshaped. I'm so glad I didn't. Partly of course because I've avoided painful surgery! But also because in recent years my nose has subtly changed. It's still an unusual shape, still not at all pretty; but I'm sure that ageing has been good for it. It seems less fleshy to me, a thought smaller. Maybe my self-perception has developed, and I'm now prouder of my appearance, even though it's still imperfect. At any rate, I'm generally content with how I look, and disinclined to meddle, even if I had the money for it. As for my nose, I can claim that it's a nose of singular character. And definitely a Family Nose. And, thankfully, not a surgical failure, as might have turned out to be the case.

Next, costumes. The museum had a large section devoted to fashion. Let a few pictures give you an idea. This was obviously an area where items had been added to the original collection.


And finally the Swan. It was made in 1773, and the original casing has long gone. But the swan and its mechanism, and the river it sits in, with the wiggling silver fish, have survived intact (although of course discreetly repaired). It was a rich man's toy, to show off to his house guests. To see it is to marvel at what could be achieved by late-18th century craftsmen. I saved my first glimpse until close to performance-time at 2.00pm. A lot of people were already seated, and more soon came in until there was standing-room only. 


Its 'keeper' came in and opened up a flap in the side of the swan's modern casing. He turned a water tap on, and wound the clockwork up, all the time reminding us that the Swan was a Very Old And Temperamental Lady, who might decide not to do as much of her routine as usual. All we could do was hope. It was fun moving around, taking pictures of the waiting spectators. Nobody seemed to mind.


It began, to twinkling music from somewhere in the base of the casing. The Swan moved her neck, studied her keeper while he was still making little adjustments, then turned her neck in other directions, and lowering it to nibble at the fishes in front of her, who were moving too.


All the time her keeper was anxiously watching the mechanism. After several graceful neck-movements, the Swan finished. The performance had hardly lasted a minute, but had been amazing to see. Part-way through, I switched Tigerlily into video mode, with this result (click on the white arrow in the middle). 


After the crowd had dispersed, I had a good close-up look at the Swan.


I was very impressed with the Bowes Museum, and would thoroughly recommend it. It's got nice grounds too, and it's free to park. It also has a pleasant café. I enjoyed tea and cake before leaving.


1 comment:

  1. It is quite a long time since we visited and I was worried that it might have been spoiled and lost it's charm with too much modernisation. Seems to be as worthwhile a visit as it ever was. I had completely forgotten about the swan!

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