One Visitor’s Tale of Madame Tussaud’s 1883 Exhibition

Madame Tussaud. Author’s collection.

Heavy rain showers induced one Londoner who had been reading William Black’s Macleod of Dare to ponder about a better way to spend his time. When he looked out his window and saw wet streets and large splashing raindrops, instead of staying inside or following Black’s advice to enjoy an art pilgrimage to the National Gallery or South Kensington Museum, he decided to do something entirely different. Something that he had never done before.

What he decided to do was visit Madame Tussaud’s well-known establishment located on Baker Street. He hailed a hackney cab and gave this report of his visit that was published in November of 1883 in the Aberdeen Press and Journal:

I walked down the street keeping a sharp look-out for one of those long strips of canvas, which were identified in my mind with shows of a like character, and which commonly bear some such inscription as “Just added — O’Donnell and Carey!” But nothing of the kind was to be seen, and when I came to the Madame Tussaud’s there was no extravagant amount of gimcrack ornamentation or loud-toned paint on the outside of the building.

Having paid the requisite shilling, and passed through a turnstyle (for Madame Tussaud, or rather her sons, manage their business on the principle adopted by Artemus Ward in his model waxwork — you cannot go in without paying, but you can pay without going in) I laid my wet umbrella in front of one of the two attendants, who were sitting behind a little table, and waited for the check which is usually given in exchange. There was a slight pause, and I was about to call his attention to the fact that he was keeping me waiting, when the second attendant took my umbrella and gave me a numbered card, and then I discovered that I had been waiting patiently in front of a cleverly made-up wax effigy. I had often heard of these little mistakes, but had always put them down as “Truth a la Labouchere;” but I must confess that personally I was completely “sold.” The flesh and blood attendant, of course, had noticed my mistake, but not the faintest shadow of a smile had crossed his countenance, it was too familiar a joke with him; and two gentlemen visitors immediately behind me, waiting their turn to pass in, did not seem to be conscious that they were rubbing sleeves with a dummy.

I had gone to Madame Tussaud’s with the impression that I should see something only a little better than the exhibitions common all over the country, where you pay twopence, and where a playful transposition of the descriptive tickets cannot be said to mislead the succeeding visitors to any great extent, as all the figures have strong family likeness. These provincial exhibitions are all after the style of Mrs. Jarley’s collection, rendered immortal by Dickens, where all the effigies stood “more or less unsteadily on their legs with their eyes very wide open, and their nostrils very much inflated, and the muscles of their arms and legs very much developed, and all their countenances expressing great surprise.” But it was very different here.

Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jarley outside her traveling wax show. Author’s collection.

In Madame Tussaud’s you could not make those wonderful transformations which enlightened the soul of her peripatetic rival, the names of whose effigies were always altered to suit the visitors expected. Thus Mrs. Jarley is said by a few judicious alterations to have made an effigy of Garibaldi to represent Mr. Lindley Murray as he appeared when engaged in the composition of his English grammar, and turned a murderess of great renown into Mrs. Hannah More; transformed Mr. Pitt in the poet Cowper, by simply putting him into a nightcap and bedgown, and dressing Mary Queen of Scots with a dark wig, wide shirt collar, and male attire, thereby making a complete image of Lord Byron. I had not been in the Baker Street establishment ten minutes when I discovered that every figure had its own individuality, and was often a capital portrait, and that if sometimes the art was not of a very high order, it was at all events thoroughly realistic.

The effigies were mostly arranged in groups, and, upon the whole, due regard was paid to the unities of time and place. The personages pourtrayed were pretty equally divided between those who were famous and those who were notorious, and the largest groups contained as many as twenty figures. As I walked up and down the rooms I could not help an uncanny feeling creeping over me; and although, of course, I was always conscious that the figures were nothing more than cunningly arranged bundles of rags and wax, yet their glass stare had something unearthly about it.

The group most favoured by visitors was that which represented the Royal family of England, surrounded by leading statesmen, warriors, and divines. The modeller has been especially successfully with this group, but even here realism was pushed to the extreme. The Duke of Albany, for instance, supports himself with a walking-stick, which is a capital copy of the one I have seen in the hands of His Royal Highness. The Duke of Connaught wears the uniform of the Rifle Brigade, and the Marquis of Lorne is, of course, in kilts, though, after the researches of Lord Archibald, I would not venture to commit myself the length of saying that it is of real Campbell check.

The commander-in-chief is surrounded by a strong staff, and great pains has been taken to reproduce the uniforms, and especially the decorations, and in an Indian group carpets and hubble-bubbles are introduced with good effect. Opposite the latter group William Cobbett sits, snuffbox in hand, contemplating an Indian Prince with a benignant air. Henry M. Stanley and Dr. [David] Livingstone are posed as on the occasion of their first meeting at Ujiji, when the journalistic explorer opened the conversation with the words — “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Stanley’s clothes are, the visitor is assured, fac similes of those worn by him in Africa, and it must be said that he looks seedy, not to say dirty. Sir Wilfried Lawson is made to hold his Permissive Bill (is this idea taken from Mrs. Jarley’s show, where “Mr. Pitt holds in his hand a correct model of the bill for the imposition of the window duty?”) but since the modeller turned out the portrait the apostle of cold water and temperance by Act of Parliament has grown a longer beard, and has less hair on his head. I looked about for Mr. Spurgeon, but could not see him where the catalogue said he was, and afterwards came upon him in an adjoining room, “The Hall of Kings,” where he was sandwiched between William of Normandy and William the Second. I thought the effigies of Parnell and Davitt rather poor, and Mr. Bradlaugh’s forbidding features are much flattered. His low-cut vest, broad expanse of shirt front, and narrow black tie are, however, faithfully reproduced. The modeller has also favoured Lord Hartington, softening down his thick lips and heavily hung under jaw. The legs out also to have been longer and more obtrusive about the knees.

The meeting on 10 November 1871 between Stanley and Livingstone that gave rise to the popular quotation “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Public domain.

The Berlin Congress has great part of one of the rooms to itself, and Lord Beaconsfield and Prince Bismarck are spirited portraits. There is a melancholy interest attaching to a glass-case placed at the font of the platform, and which contains the Trinity House uniforms worn by Lord Beaconsfield at the Congress. Near at hand is the “people’s tribute” got up by Tracy Turnerelli. The exhibition is showing relics of Napoleon the Great, the most interesting objects being the Berlin carriage used by the Emperor in some of his campaigns, and which was captured at Waterloo, and the camp bedstead used by the Emperor at St. Helena and on which he died.

Of course I paid the extra sixpence which is charged for admission to the chamber of horrors — to have left it out would have been criminal in the eyes of any rightly-constituted sight-seer. When I entered I was immediately hustled aside by a fat old lady, who was in a state of great nervous excitement. She cried to a young girl, who was evidently fascinated by a fearful plaster cast — “Come away, Mariarann, I’ve seen quite enough of these ‘orrible things!” It certainly was a repulsive place. All the other rooms had been gay with pictures and gilt mountings, but this room was hung with black, and the poor wretches whose effigies for their sins were exposed to view, were a by no means cheerful company. Repellant as were the surroundings, however, the chamber of horrors seemed to be the most popular part of the whole exhibition, and it was crowded the whole time I was there.

The catalogue may well place at the top of its list of murders a quotation from the Daily Telegraph — “It is a shallow critic who wonders at the public interest in great crimes, and finds fault with it.” I must confess to a gruesome feeling as I looked at the counterfeit presentment of the various criminals, and could not enjoy the models of Charles Peace, or the policeman in full uniform who apprehended him, or of Felix Stumm, or William Palmer, or Henry Wainwright, or Franz Muller, or Traupmann, or any of the fifty odd individuals whose names have figure in connection with great crimes, not to mention the casts of heads, liberally bedaubed with red paint. Robespierre’s head, bound with a bloody handkerchief, was sickening; and a bust of Marat, pulling the knife out of his naked breast, was simply frightening. Burke and Hare figured as two most disreputable scoundrels, with greasy caps, dirty red neckerchiefs, and badly repaired boots. I left the room after a cursory survey, haunted by visions of gallows and guillotines, and pictures of loathsome wounds.

I left Madame Tussaud’s with the conviction that it is not without reason that it has taken rank as one of the sights of London.[1]

References:

  • [1] Aberdeen Press and Journal, “A Visit to Madame Tussaud’s,” November 10, 1883, p. 5.

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