Conservation of a singing bird cage automaton

By Dale Sardeson, MA Conservation Studies 2019 Alumni

This singing bird cage automaton is part of the Edward James Foundation collection. It belonged to William James and was one of Edward’s favourite toys as a child. The object had been on display on the purple landing in West Dean House for a number of years but had not been regularly run for a long time. When it was examined in the clocks workshop we found that the movement was very dirty, covered in old oil and corrosion, and the sub-mechanism within the bird that controls its movements was sluggish and inconsistent - a result of congealed old lubrication within.

To address the functionality issues of the bird, the feathers needed to be completely removed, and the body disassembled. The original feathers were fairly tattered and sun-bleached, but it was agreed with the college’s head of collections that as many of them as possible should be retained and replaced in their original positions. This was made easier by the construction of the bird; the majority of the feathers were adhered to paper-like substrates that were wrapped around the bird’s body, head and tail like a skin. It was possible, by making a single incision along the underside of each skin section, to remove the substrate with the majority of the feathers attached. Only a few needed to be removed so that the incision could be made discreetly and then covered with the feathers again later.

The inside of the bird was then able to be cleaned. It was not relubricated since the mechanisms that work its actions are so light that oil is not needed - it was old lubrication that had caused its action to fail in the first place. With this work complete the bird was reassembled, and the skin substrates repositioned with their incisions sealed with Paraloid-B72 dissolved in acetone.

Conservator-restorers working on singing bird automata often face an ethical challenge when it comes to replacing missing or damaged feathers, especially on the smaller snuff-box models as they were often originally coated with hummingbird feathers. Finding real, ethically-sourced feathers of the appropriate size poses a whole host of challenges. Fortunately for us, the cage-style models like this one have slightly larger birds, and we had decided to cover any pre-existing bald patches or minor losses from the removal process with plain white feathers in order to differentiate them from the historic plumage. These were able to be sourced from the natural moulting of companion parakeets.

The main mechanical movement of the automaton mostly required a good clean and fresh, appropriate oil applying, but there was an issue with the fly worm gear which was causing the whole train of gears to intermittently stop working. These worm gears are notorious for their sensitivity to position, and the issue with this one was that wear to both the pivot holes and the gear teeth was preventing proper meshing. The depthing of the two interacting arbors was addressed with new bushes, which corrected the problem.

The bellows had some small leaks which were proving enough to prevent the proper operation of the whistle. Rather than replace the entire skin, the bellows were given to Leah Humenuck, a final year books student at West Dean, who patched the leaks with Japanese tissue. These repairs ensured the whistle operated properly. Whilst the bird’s voice is probably still not quite as strong as when it was new, we felt that to completely re-skin the bellows would have been more interventive than was necessary for an object like this that will not see heavy usage and is more kept for historical record on account of its association with Edward James.

An audio-visual record of the automaton’s function was taken at every stage of its reassembly in order to demonstrate how all the different parts of the mechanism interact together to produce the movement and sound.

Watch the video of the conservation work being carried out here.

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The horology courses at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation give you the opportunity to develop the skills and competences to work towards becoming a professional horologist or horological conservator, or to undertake further professional development in horology.

Study options include FdA Historic Craft Practices, Graduate Diploma in Conservation Studies and MA Conservation Studies.