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Great European Lives: Marie Tussaud

A waxwork of Swiss wax modeller Marie Tussaud (1761 - 1850). In 1835 she set up a permanent exhibition in Baker Street, which was burned down in 1925 and re-opened in Marylebone Road in 1928 as Madame Tussaud's. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY explores the life of French wax artist Marie Tussaud.

The 19th century was a few months old when the call came, summoning Madame Tussaud to the Tuileries Palace. Her client was a busy man, she was told, so she should arrive at 6am. Ushered inside from the pink light of dawn Tussaud was shown into a grand room where Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul of France, sat on a hard chair and looked straight ahead with the air of a man who would prefer to be somewhere else.

His wife Joséphine de Beauharnais greeted the small, bespectacled woman warmly and made conversation as Tussaud made her preparations, mixing the warm plaster and soaking lengths of cloth.

As she did so she told the consul what the process would involve, how she would do her best to minimise the discomfort but assuring him he would be very happy with the results. He replied curtly that it was his wife who desired this likeness, not him.

Tussaud lifted the first cloth and turned to place it against his brow. She paused, liquid dripping onto the protective sheet she had placed around his shoulders.

‘I beg that you will not be alarmed by this, sir,’ she said.

Finally, Napoleon looked at her.

‘Alarmed?’ he snapped. ‘I should not be alarmed, madame, if you were to surround my head with loaded pistols. Now proceed!’

In later years this story became one of Marie Tussaud’s favourites. It went down particularly well during the many years she spent in Britain and Ireland, where she toured with her waxwork likenesses until settling in London’s Baker Street in 1835 and where Bonaparte remained a figure that induced a mixture of awe and ridicule.

She would embellish details, laughing that the French leader went so puce at her impertinence the cloths on his face began to steam.

Surly Napoleon may have been, but at least he’d been alive. Over the previous decade Tussaud had been called upon to take as many death masks as life likenesses, victims of the Great Terror, guillotined nobles and dignitaries some of whom she had known personally. A mixture of professional pride and self-preservation sustained her when presented with a bloodstained sack containing another severed head fresh from the basket.

Among these posthumous subjects were Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, of whom she had fond memories of the time he saved her from a nasty tumble down the steps of the Bastille after a visit to see the famous prison after it had fallen to the revolutionaries in 1789.

Faces were her trade. In capturing a likeness in wax, Tussaud produced the closest approximation to the real thing in any of the artistic trades. Painted portraits were in two dimensions, busts in bronze and stone had sightless eyes and lacked nuance and character. A waxwork, however, when done right, gave the impression the person themselves was in the room and time itself had stopped around them. Everything was in the detail, especially the face, which not only had to resemble the subject but capture something of their character, their charisma, their very presence.

It might be her fascination with the face stemmed from stories about her father, killed during the Seven Years War, two months before she was born. A career soldier, Joseph Grosholtz had had a silver plate fitted to where a significant section of his lower jaw had been shot away in battle, leaving him grotesque enough in appearance for people to avoid him in the street. Her mother kept the plate after his death and Marie was repelled and fascinated by it, this piece of a face that wasn’t a face, a built-in replica that survived him.

On her husband’s death Marie’s widowed mother Anne Marie found work as a housekeeper to a physician in Bern named Philippe Curtius. The appointment would have far-reaching implications: Curtius was a keen modeller in wax who opened a small museum of life-size likenesses of military leaders, writers and artists. So successful was he that in 1765, when Marie was four, he moved himself, his work, his housekeeper and her daughter to Paris where Marie became effectively his apprentice.

She completed her first full-size wax figure at the age of 16, a highly-praised likeness of Voltaire, and followed it with Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, all of them regular guests of Curtius at his home, giving her the opportunity to go beyond a mere facsimile to infuse into the work some essence of the men.

Curtius’ exhibitions were so highly regarded he moved them into the royal palace in 1776, opening a second establishment, a Caverne des Grands Voleurs (‘Cave of the Great Thieves’) where he displayed likenesses of notorious criminals, many modelled from corpses fresh from execution. In that room lay the roots of Madame Tussaud’s famous Chamber of Horrors.

Marie’s work impressed Louis XVI’s sister Elizabeth enough to engage her as a tutor in wax modelling at the palace of Versailles, becoming so valued that in her memoirs Tussaud claimed to have lived at the palace for the nine years leading up to the 1789 revolution. In 1793, suspicions regarding Marie’s possible sympathies for the old regime saw her imprisoned and, according to some accounts, have her head shaved in preparation for the guillotine. Curtius was out of the country at the time but had always been on good terms with the likes of Robespierre and Marat and had even participated in the storming of the Bastille. He’d acted quickly to install wax likenesses of revolutionary leaders into his exhibition, one of whom, the actor and president of the National Council Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, was so impressed by his likeness he intervened to have Curtius’ protégé freed.

After her release the grisly task of casting death masks for the guillotined began. According to her memoirs, Tussaud created masks from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and a whole body cast of Jean-Paul Marat after his murder in the bath by Charlotte Corday, of whom she took a death mask following her subsequent execution.

The 1790s also saw the death of Curtius in 1794 and marriage to an engineer, Francois Tussaud, a year later, a union that produced three children but turned out to be an unhappy one. The febrile atmosphere that prevailed in Paris also meant the waxwork exhibition she inherited from Curtius was struggling financially.

In the early 1800s, however, Tussaud met the stage magician Paul Philidor, who among other illusions devised a magic lantern show of supernatural phenomena he called ‘phantasmagoria’. Ghostly images of historical figures including Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth I shimmered into view, spectral images that changed colour and would vanish in an instant.

In 1801 Philidor took his Cabinet of Optical and Mechanical Effects show to the Lyceum in London and invited Tussaud to incorporate her waxworks into the spectacle. The Peace of Amiens the following year opened up travel between France and England, allowing Tussaud to join Philidor and escape the gruesome task of preserving for posterity the faces of victims of state terror.

When she sailed for England and watched the spires of Calais retreating into the morning haze Tussaud, who had just turned 40, probably had an inkling she’d never see France again. She’d witnessed too much death and tumult to pine for her home country, and the fact there would be a wide channel of choppy sea between her and her husband was another aspect in Britain’s favour.

When Philidor attempted to claim most of the credit – and income – for Tussaud’s waxworks she struck out on her own, spending the next three decades touring Britain and Ireland with her exhibition. The legacy of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars fascinated the British public who flocked to see the era’s most famous and infamous characters gathered in one place in effigies so lifelike as to provoke gasps.

Capitalising on a particular fascination with the macabre she discerned in her audiences – the depiction of Marat slumped dead in his bath was her most popular exhibit – Tussaud set about accumulating relics as well as replicating the figures themselves. There was an original guillotine blade, a piece of the cravat worn by Charles I on the day of his execution and the rosary Mary, Queen of Scots took to the executioner’s block. She had many items related to Napoleon including a tooth he had extracted in exile on St Helena and the mattress and pillows from his deathbed.

When she finally stopped her wandering and opened her permanent exhibition in Baker Street Tussaud would sometimes see the Duke of Wellington standing in front of her figure of Napoleon, lost in thought. She would sometimes think of approaching and telling her story of the time she met him at the Tuileries but didn’t want to impose. Besides, it was the viewer’s response to the figure that was important to her. The woman who crafted them was happy to stay in the shadows.

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