Madame Tussaud: A career in wax carved out during the French Revolution

An image of Madame Marie Tussaud on a plaque at the entrance to Madame Tussauds, the wax work museum

An image of Madame Marie Tussaud on a plaque at the entrance to Madame Tussauds, the wax work museum she founded. Picture: PA/Tim Ireland - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Adam Sonin explores the life of Madam Marie Tussaud - pioneering wax artist and founder of Madame Tussauds wax museum.

The blue plaque to Madame Marie Tussaud at 24 Wellington Road in St John's Wood. Picture: Polly Hanc

The blue plaque to Madame Marie Tussaud at 24 Wellington Road in St John's Wood. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Polly Hancock

An entry in a London guide of 1842 described Marie Tussaud as “an aged lady with an accent which proclaims her Gallic origin”.

It went on to say: “Were she motionless you would take her for a piece of waxwork. This is Madame Tussaud, a lady who is in herself an exhibition.”

Madame Tussaud was born Anna Marie Grosholtz (1761-1850), probably in Strasbourg where she was baptised. She grew up in the household of a German-Swiss doctor, Philippe Guillaume Mathé Curtius (1737-1794), in Bern, where her mother was a housekeeper. Her father had died as a result of ill health and wounds sustained while serving as a soldier in the Seven Years’ War.

It is believed that Curtius had been unable to stand the sight of blood and, instead of dissecting and working on corpses, he used lifelike wax models. Realising the commercial potential of sculpting accurate models of famous faces (both historic and contemporary), he quickly built up a collection of wax works which he displayed at his home. By 1776, Curtius had moved to Paris where his models fascinated the crowds and he started a “cabinet de cire” (wax exhibition) in the Palais Royal.

The young Marie, as she was known, showed prodigious talent in sketching and modelling and Curtius mentored her in the art of producing wax models. Her first complete “portrait”, sculpted when she was just 17, was of the philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who joked that at his age every mask was likely to be a death mask.

The young woman’s talent did not go unnoticed and Madame Elisabeth (1764-1794), Louis XVI’s (1754-1793) sister, asked her to give lessons in sketching, sculpture and wax modelling at the palace of Versailles. With Elisabeth, she even distributed food and money to the poor of Paris.

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During her nine-year stay, she modelled the king himself, Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) and their young children. She was forced to work quickly since a royal family could not be expected to sit and pose for long – let alone have moulds placed over their faces. It had been her idea to capture the family in a life-sized tableau, eating dinner, seemingly normal and accessible. The hair used in this work was taken from the thoroughbred horses from the royal stables. Outside of tutoring, she roamed the grounds of Versailles, sketching nature and architecture.

With the French Revolution breaking out in 1789, Curtius, now involved in revolutionary politics, realised that his protégée was in danger and he recalled Marie to Paris. And it was during this period that the duo was asked to model some of the lifeless heads of the aristocracy – trophies to be shown off by the Republicans. Curtius was present when the Bastille was stormed and many of the victims of the guillotine had been known to Marie from her time at Versailles.

The streets of Paris descended into lawlessness and chaos and Marie and her mother found themselves imprisoned in the notorious La Force prison. No reason was given for their arrest but it was probably due to their associations with the palace. Marie found herself in a cell with Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), the future Mrs Bonaparte, and even had her hair cropped in preparation for the guillotine. Fortunately, Dr Curtius intervened and mother and daughter were released. The exhibition now displayed the heroes and enemies of the Republicans and Marie began to notice the public interest in the horrific and gruesome. She even set to work with her clay after Louis XVI had been executed and sketched Marie Antoinette as she passed through the streets en route to her death.

When Curtius died, Marie inherited his exhibitions, business, property and substantial debts. She married an engineer, Francois Tussaud, in 1795 and the couple had three children. The first, a girl, died aged just six months but two boys survived.

In 1800, Joséphine de Beauharnais persuaded her husband Napoleon (1769-1821) to sit for Marie. He was delighted with the results but, when asked if he was alarmed by the mould she placed on his face, he replied, “Alarmed? I should not be alarmed if you were to surround my head with loaded pistols”.

After the Revolution, the couple found themselves in a precarious financial position. This was partly due to a reduction in public interest in the exhibition and the debts inherited from Curtius. Marie, ever resilient, was forced to grow vegetables and raise chickens as inflation took a hold.

In 1802, an old friend of Curtius asked Marie whether she would like to visit London and exhibit her work. Speaking no English and leaving one of her sons in Paris with his father, she courageously crossed The Channel in search of new opportunity. Her first gig was at London’s Lyceum Theatre where she exhibited her Grand European Cabinet of Figures.

Unfortunately few records exist of her time in Britain as she was constantly on the road, living the life of an independent show woman. For the next 30 years, Madame Tussaud toured Britain, moving to Edinburgh, visiting Ireland, where she was shipwrecked off the Lancashire coast on her return voyage. During the Queen Square riots in Bristol in 1831, her models were almost destroyed by an angry mob who had decided to torch the building they were being stored in. Amazingly, Madame Tussaud managed to save the entire collection.

New figures were constantly added. Among them were George III, George IV, Tsar Alexander I, Queen Victoria, Sir Robert Peel and Sir Walter Scott. Her success allowed her to donate some of her proceeds to charitable causes, including “the distressed peasantry of Ireland” and “the distressed manufacturers of York”.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) based The Old Curiosity Shop character Mrs Jarley on her and adverts which appeared in the Pickwick Advertiser (the advertising leaves sewn into each issue of The Pickwick Papers series) were placed there by Madame Tussaud, shrewdly recognising the power of promotion and jumping on the bandwagon of a publishing phenomenon. Circulation of the series rose from 4,000 to 40,000 copies by the 15th instalment.

Finally, after leading an itinerant life for so many years, she settled in London establishing her exhibition at The Baker Street Bazaar. Contrary to popular beliefs, The Adjoining Room, later to be dubbed the Chamber of Horrors, was not given the name by Punch magazine but was an in-house idea. The price of admission to Napoleon And The Chamber of Horrors was listed as sixpence, as advertised in the Illustrated London News.

A persistent (but unsubstantiated) story links Madame Tussaud with Effingham Lodge, Upper Norwood, the home of Mary Nesbitt (1742-1825), an English upper class socialite and courtesan, who assisted Madame Tussaud after she first arrived in England. Records from the rate books show her living at 24 Wellington Road, St John’s Wood, in 1838 and 1839. By 1840, she had moved to 58 Baker Street (now destroyed) and, having crafted her last figure – a “self-portrait” at the age of 81 – it was here that she died in 1850.