11 Interesting Tidbits about the Wax Sculptor Madame Tussaud

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame Tussauds (without an apostrophe) is a popular attraction with sites throughout the world that include not only the United States and Great Britain but also India, Japan, Pakistan, China, and the United Arab Emirates. The originator of this world-wide legacy, was a vivacious, talkative, and determined woman named Marie Tussaud. Besides being feisty, creative, and motivated into her eighties, there are eleven other tidbits about the wax sculptor Madame Tussaud that you may not know:

Tidbit #1. Madame Tussaud was born Anne-Marie Grosholtz (sometimes spelled Gresholtz) in Strasbourg, France, on 1 December, and her baptismal record is dated 7 December 1761. She learned her wax modelling skills from Philippe Mathé Curtius. Curtius was a doctor who began to create miniature anatomically correct flesh-tinted models from wax for anatomical study. Marie’s mother worked as a housekeeper for him and Marie called him uncle (although he may have been her father). He mentored her in the art of wax modelling, and when he died, he left his estate to her.

Portrait of Madame Élisabeth, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tidbit #2. Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth, became interested in learning wax sculpturing and approached Curtius wanting lessons. Curtius appointed 18-year-old Marie to teach her, and because Marie was often with Madame Élisabeth, Madame Élisabeth supposedly requested that Marie reside at the Palace of Versailles. There are no records to indicate that such a request was made by Madame Élisabeth or that Marie ever lived at Versailles. However, it is highly likely that Marie visited the palace and taught Madame Élisabeth the art of wax modeling because Madame Élisabeth is known to have created several religious effigies from wax.

Tidbit #3. The first sculpture that Marie did on her own was of the famous Enlightenment writer 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 Curtius wanted Voltaire to dine with him and see his wax figures at the Salon de Cire. It was during this visit that Marie molded Voltaire’s face.

Philip Astley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #4. 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 Marie 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 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.

Tidbit #5. Marie became Madame Tussaud on 19 October 1795 (28 Vendémiaire Year IV) when she married François Tussaud. Tussaud was a civil engineer born in the commune of Mâcon, in the department of Saôneet-Loire. He was 28 when he married 33-year-old Marie. However, 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.” One 1979 pamphlet states that after she moved to London:

“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.”[1]

Tidbit #6. When Madame Tussaud 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 when he was 21. 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. The exhibition remained at Baker Street until 1884 when it moved around the corner to Marylebone Road.

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

Tidbit #7. 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.

Tidbit #8. 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. Splurges included a pinch of snuff, a sip of porter, and once she purchased a hat costing £1 4s.

Tidbit #9. When Madame Tussaud began 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.

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

Tidbit #10. Madame Tussaud had several harrowing experiences while on the road. One harrowing 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 building that housed Madame Tussaud’s exhibition, and one newspaper 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.”[2]

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 Madame Tussaud’s until a fire destroyed it in 1925, along with many other priceless possessions.

Tidbit #11. Madame Tussaud died on Monday 16 April 1850 after a short illness. She was 89 years old. Although Madame Tussaud’s favorite saying to her grandsons had long been, “Beware, my children, of the three black crows — the doctor, the lawyer, and the priest,”[3] those were not the last words she spoke to her sons. She gave them sound advice, “I implore you, above all things, never to quarrel.”[4]

References:

  • [1] Madame Tussaud’s (London: Cripplegate Printing Co. Ltd., 1979), p. 3.
  • [2] Sheffield Independent, “Riots at Bristol,” November 19, 1831, p. 1.
  • [3] Chepstow Weekly Advertiser, “The Tussaud Family and Their Colossal Waxworks,” April 11, 1885, p. 4.
  • [4] John Theodore Tussaud, The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1920), p. 359.

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