Madame Tussaud: Interesting Tidbits about the Wax Sculptor

Madame Tussauds is a popular attraction with sites throughout the world that includes not only the United States and Great Britain but also India, Japan, Pakistan, China, and the United Arab Emirates. The originator and founder of this famous world-wide legacy originally known as “Madame Tussaud’s”* was a vivacious, talkative, and determined woman named Madame Tussaud. Besides being feisty, creative, and motivated into her eighties, there are many other interesting tidbits about this wax sculptor that you may not know:

Madame Tussaud

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #1. Madame Tussaud was born Anne-Marie Grosholtz (sometimes spelled Gresholtz) in Strasbourg, France, on 1 December 1761 with her baptismal record dated 7 December. To differentiate her from her mother who had the same name, the young Anne-Marie was called Marie. Her mother served as a housekeeper to Philippe Mathé Curtius whom Marie called uncle (although some people believe he may have been her father). He was a doctor and began to create miniature anatomically correct flesh-tinted models from wax for anatomical study by medical students. It was from Curtius that Madame Tussaud learned wax modeling and when he died, he left his estate to her.

Tidbit #2. Eventually Curtius moved to Paris and Marie and her mother joined him. At Curtius’ house in Paris, Marie described it as the “resort of many of the most talented men in France.”[1] These men convened there regularly to debate the serious issues of the times. According to her, Curtius was a brilliant conversationalist, which was part of the draw for visitors who reputedly included such illustrious guests as the Enlightenment writer Voltaire, the philosopher Rousseau, the French Revolutionary writer and orator who excelled at the Estates General known as the Count of Mirabeau, America’s Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Maximilien Robespierre, who later became one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

Tidbit #3: According to Madame Tussaud, Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth, became interested in learning wax sculpturing and approached Curtius wanting lessons. Curtius then appointed 18-year-old Marie to teach her, and because she was often with Madame Élisabeth, Marie claims that she began to reside at the Palace of Versailles because Madame Élisabeth requested it. Unfortunately, there are no records to indicate that such a request was made by Madame Élisabeth or that Marie ever lived at Versailles, but it is highly likely that she visited the palace and taught Madame Élisabeth the art of wax modeling because the princess is known to have created several religious effigies from wax.

Portrait of Madame Élisabeth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #4. The first wax sculpture that Marie did on her own was of Voltaire. Years earlier, Louis XV had banished him from Paris, but in 1778, Louis XVI allowed him to return. Curtius sent Voltaire an invitation to visit because he wanted him to dine with him and see his latest wax figures at the Salon de Cire. It was during this visit that Marie claims to have molded Voltaire’s face.

Tidbit #5. When the French Revolution broke out, a mob brought Marie two heads stuck on pikes. One head belonged to the governor of the Bastille and the other head belonged to a man accused of misleading revolutionaries about the location of arms before the storming of the Bastille. The mob wanted her to make death masks of the men’s severed heads. She dared not refuse and not wanting to let the mob into the house, she maintains she took a chair and placed it in the doorway telling the mob they could watch her work. Unbeknownst to Marie, the English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, Philip Astley, was in France at the time. He witnessed the event and wrote about it in his diary. He noted that he had seen Marie in her doorway taking the bloody heads, placing them in her lap, and making the death masks. Several days later, Astley ordered waxed copies of the men’s heads, smuggled them across the border, and advertised them in his London circus where they were a “horrifying” hit with his clientele.

Philip Astley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #6: Madame Tussaud created many wax portraits of other famous people during her lifetime. Among them was one of Princesse de Lamballe, friend and Superintendent of the Household to the Queen Marie Antoinette. Shown below in an oval frame is the wax image thought to have been created by Madame Tussaud when the princess was imprisoned at La Force.

Madame Tussaud - her wax portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe

Wax portrait of the Princess de Lamballe by Madame Tussaud. Courtesy of Invaluable.

Tidbit #7: Jean-Paul Marat was a French political theorist, physician, and scientist who became best known for his role as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution. Because of his radical leanings he was assassinated while in his bathtub on 13 July 1793 by Charlotte Corday. Marie claims that after Marat’s murder she was beckoned to his house to take his death mask and arrived while his body was still warm and just before it was taken away by authorities. After the death, the famous painter Jacques-Louis David, who became the minister of propaganda for the revolutionary government, was ordered by the Convention to preserve Marat’s murder on canvas. David’s bath-tub murder scene, known as “The Death of Marat,” became one of his most famous paintings but he apparently did not capture the scene from real life but rather from the wax model created by Curtius and Marie, which was put on display at Curtius’ wax salon soon after the incident.

Painting by Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #8. Marie’s grandfather was an executioner and it was customary for sons to follow the occupation of their fathers. However, her father, Johann Joseph Grosholtz, chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead he served as an aide-de-camp to Austrian field marshal General Wurmser during the Seven Years’ War and was killed in battle when his lower jaw was shot away. Being from a family of executioners may also help explain why Madame Tussaud was willing to handle severed heads and create death masks. It was also customary for the daughters of executioners to marry executioners, which meant Madame Tussaud’s marriage prospects may have been limited and that may have also been why she remained unmarried for so long. Nonetheless, on 19 October 1795 (28 Vendémiaire Year IV) she married François Tussaud, a civil engineer born in the commune of Mâcon, in the department of Saôneet-Loire. He was twenty-eight and she thirty-three at the time.

Tidbit #9: In 1802, because their marriage was unhappy,  Madame Tussaud left her husband and her 2-year-old son François (called Francis in England) behind in Paris. She moved to London with her 4-year-old son Joseph, whom she called “Nini.” In London she had her own exhibition and of her time in England, one 1979 pamphlet states:

“From her 41st to her 74th year she lived the exhausting and precarious life of a travelling showman, moving from town to town with her caravans – setting up in awkward places, improvising lighting and backgrounds, unpacking and repairing, advertising with handbills and encouraging newspaper anecdotes, [and] organising charity benefits to bring in useful patrons.”[2]

Tidbit #10. The first death mask that Madame Tussaud made in England was of a Colonel Edward Marcus Despard. He had conspired but failed to assassinate George III. She knew that Despard’s waxed figure would bring in a crowd. So, even before his execution on 21 February 1803, she began devising how to obtain a copy of his severed head, which she did from his friends.

Colonel Despard, Etching taken at trial by Barlow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #11. When Madame Tussaud began touring and exhibiting her waxworks in England, her exhibition was called “Curtius’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” She would continue to call her exhibition a cabinet and use Curtius’s name until she established her own reputation as a competent businesswoman and wax modeller in 1808.

Tidbit #12: After twenty or so years on the road, Madame Tussaud realized that she wanted to encourage a higher-class clientele and so she began employing a band or orchestra to accompany those who visited and promenaded. An advertisement taken out by her in the Bristol Mercury in August of 1823 read:

“There will be a PROMENADE every Evening, from 6 till 10, accompanied by a full MILITARY BAND, of acknowledged merit. No improper Persons will be admitted.”[3]

Interestingly, this idea of promenading from room to room to study the wax figures accompanied by music, seems to have been Madame Tussaud’s invention. Visitors could spend the entire evening in leisurely fashion at her exhibition, and apparently, they loved it, because the Liverpool Observer noted, “The promenade among the illustrious dead and illustrious living is truly delightful.”[4]

Tidbit #13. Madame Tussaud had several harrowing experiences while on the road. One scary experience occurred when she and her sons were in Bristol in October of 1831. Riots broke out because the house of Lords’ rejected a Reform Bill that would have done away with some rotten boroughs and given certain industrial towns greater representation in the House of Commons. Citizens of Bristol were unhappy and violent protests were the result. Rioters looted property, destroyed the gaol, and attacked private homes. The rioters also decided to burn buildings and warned building owners about which buildings they intended on burning. One of the buildings on their list was the one that housed Madame Tussaud’s exhibition, and the Chepstow Weekly Advertiser reported:

“During this awful state of suspense, among others, Madame Tussaud and her family experienced the most painful anxiety. It was stated, among other places, that the assembly rooms were marked out for destruction, containing, at the time, their valuable collection of figures. These, at an imminent risk of injury, were partly removed, as hastily as circumstances would permit. The house in which Madame Tussaud lodged, on the opposite side of the street, was amongst the number which became ignited from the firing of the west side of the square; and we regret to hear that the lady’s constitution has received a very severe shock.”[5]

As Madame Tussaud and her sons carried their wax figures to safety, a black servant helped to keep rioters at bay. Also, on the scene was a young artist named William James Muller, who captured in a watercolor the wax figures being carried to safety amid rioters and lapping flames. Madame Tussaud later obtained the watercolor and it was prominently displayed at her museum until a fire destroyed it in 1925, along with many other priceless possessions.

The 3rd Dragoon Guards violently suppressing the Bristol Riots of 1831. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #14. When Madame Tussaud finally settled into a permanent spot it was in London. By then her exhibition was called Madame Tussaud and Sons, as Francis had joined his mother and brother, making it a family affair. Madame Tussaud and Sons was located on the west side of Baker Street in the what was called the Baker Street Bazaar. It was there in a three-story building that had originally been the King-street Barracks that they set up the wax figures and it turned into a museum rather than just an exhibition. Madame Tussaud’s remained at Baker Street until 1884 when it moved around the corner to Marylebone Road.

Tidbit #15: People were often amazed when they visited Madame Tussaud’s. One interesting visitor was Naser al-Din Shah, the King of Persia. When he visited England, he was taken to Madame Tussaud’s museum and was astounded. Of his visit he wrote:

“It is hardly possible to distinguish which are living figures and which are wax. I tried to distinguish between real living figures and those of wax, but could not succeed till the women got up, walked and laughed, and then I knew that they were living human beings.”[6]

Tidbit #16: Madame Tussaud created her Napoleon Rooms in 1843 that honored Napoleon Bonaparte. It was there she displayed a wide variety of relics she had purchased related to the Emperor. Among the most interesting of her displays was the military carriage that he had used on many of his campaigns and while he was exiled on Elba. Supposedly, Madame Tussaud’s oldest son Joseph was the person who discovered the carriage. It occurred one day as he was leaning over London Bridge watching a carriage being hoisted from a barge. He began a conversation with a gentleman, who revealed, “I can take you to a place where you can see Napoleon’s carriage which he used at Waterloo.”[7] Of course, Joseph was interested and accompanied the man to a carriage shop in Gray’s Inn Road. There he discovered the carriage, complete with “a sleeping bunk, a writing-desk, and stowage for a quantity of baggage.”[8]

Tidbit #17: The forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors was La Caverne des Grands Voleurs (The Cavern of the Great Thieves), founded by Curtius in the late 1700s. Besides the wax figure and death masks of notorious murders and the infamous from the French Revolution, the Chamber of Horrors also contained a working model of a guillotine. In fact, in 1846, Madame Tussaud’s sons tracked down an actual blade used to decapitate the condemned in France in 1793 and 1794 and purchased it from the grandson of the Paris royal executioner.

Madame Tussaud. Author’s Collection.

Tidbit #18. Madame Tussaud was known for keeping an exhaustive record of her daily finances in a notebook. She used one side of the page to record her income and the other side of the page to list expenses. Although she was extremely tight with her money, occasionally she splurged on such things as a pinch of snuff, a sip of porter, and once she purchased a hat costing £1 4s.

Tidbit #19. After Madame Tussaud established her wax museum on Baker’s Street, she learned she had to fight crime inside her museum. That was because pickpockets were known to visit. One was Thomas Daldy (whose alias was Nobby Bill). He appeared at Madame Tussaud’s respectably dressed but was quickly arrested by a plain clothes officer for attempting to rob a widow of her purse inside the exhibition in January of 1850. Another incident happened a few months later. On 12 March 1850, an article appeared in the Morning Post about a woman named Margaret Flynn who had been arrested inside Madame Tussaud’s for pickpocketing female patrons. Allen also apprehended her, and just like Daldy, Flynn was found guilty and sentenced to serve time. 

Tidbit #20. Madame Tussaud died on Monday 16 April 1850 after a short illness. Her grandchildren remembered her favorite saying, “Beware, my children, of the three black crows — the doctor, the lawyer, and the priest,”[9] but those were not the last words she spoke. She advised her sons, “I implore you, above all things, never to quarrel.”[10] She was 89 years old when she passed away and was originally buried in the Catholic Chapel at Fulham Road. However, when it was demolished, she was moved to the catacombs of St. Mary’s Church, Cadogan Place, Chelsea where the following plaque still honors her today.

Madame Tussaud

The Plaque at St. Mary’s honoring Madame Tussaud. IMG-9912 © C.L. Weber.

Tidbit #21: Madame Tussaud’s great-grandson, John Theodore, never met his great-grandmother because she died eight years before he was born. However, despite not knowing her, he paid tribute to her writing:

“In figure she was small and slight, and her manner was vivacious. Her complexion was fresh, her hair dark brown with never more than a sprinkling of grey, and her soft brown eyes were keen and alert when her interest was aroused. She was a great talker, her conversation was replete with reminiscences, and, moreover, she was blessed with a faultless memory. Austere in her habits of life, exacting in her likes and dislikes, she showed a ready sympathy with those in distress, and, above all, she was generous to a fault.”[11]

Note:
*In the late 1800s, after Madame Tussaud had died, Madame Tussaud’s museum was sold. Today, it is owned by Merlin Entertainment Group, and they decided that because Madame Tussaud no longer owned the company, there was no need for a possessive apostrophe in the name, and renamed it “Madame Tussauds” with no apostrophe.

References:

  • [1] Hervé, Francis. Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838, p. 7.
  • [2] Madame Tussaud’s (London: Cripplegate Printing Co. Ltd., 1979), p. 3.
  • [3] Bristol Mercury, “Splendid Promenade,” August 18, 1823, p. 2.
  • [4] Roy A. Church and Andrew Godley. The Emergency of Modern Marketing. London: F. Cass, 2003, p. 16.
  • [5] Sheffield Independent, “Riots at Bristol,” November 19, 1831, p. 1.
  • [6] Littell’s Living Age. Volume 123, Boston: Little and Gay, 1874, p. 693.
  • [7] Tussaud, John T., The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1920), p. 359.
  • [8] New Zealand Herald, “Relics of Buonaparte,” May 9, 1925, p. 5.
  • [9] Chepstow Weekly Advertiser, “The Tussaud Family and Their Colossal Waxworks,” April 11, 1885, p. 4.
  • [10] Tussaud, John T., p. 359.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 356-357.

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