Madame Tussaud: The astounding tale of survival behind the woman who made history

Madame Tussaud: The astounding tale of survival behind the woman who made history

Born in 1761, Marie Gresholtz, a maker of wax death masks, had modelled the author and philosopher Voltaire in 1777, and became art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister in 1780. She lived at this time with the French court at Versailles, but returned to Paris in 1789.

After the French revolution of 1787, Marie was imprisoned in LaForce prison with aristocrats and other people associated with the regime. Here she shared a cell with the future Empress Josephine (Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife). A year after her release in 1794, Marie married Frances Tussaud.

Today Tussaud is chiefly remembered for launching a famous wax museum in Britain that is still operating today and has spawned numerous outposts. However, earlier in her life, in her native France, writes Paris Amanda Spies-Gans for Journal18, “Tussaud’s wax figures were central to the Revolutionary world, both as portraits and as lifelike representations of their subjects.”

This wax figure of "Sleeping Beauty" (actually said to be a mistress of Louis XV) was recast from an original mold made by Marie Tussaud herself, and can now be seen at Tussauds London.

This wax figure of “Sleeping Beauty” (actually said to be a mistress of Louis XV) was recast from an original mold made by Marie Tussaud herself, and can now be seen at Tussauds London.

Tussaud was trained by a Swiss master of wax anatomy, Philippe Curtius. Curtius and his young pupil moved to Paris where, in time, she would model not internal body parts but instead the likenesses of Voltaire, Louis XVI, Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She was in Paris during the Revolution and, on 12 July 1789, a mob stole the wax busts of the Duc d’Orleans and finance minister Necker from their exhibition, and paraded them about the streets in a mock funeral. (The real men had been banished, so the protesters felt their waxy simulacra had to bear punishment.) The mob was shot at, marking the first real bloodletting of the Revolution, an event that stoked the storming of the Bastille two days later.

Soon Tussaud was casting guillotined heads; even without their bodies, they were still the personalities of the time. She was called to take a cast of the rapidly decomposing body of Jean-Paul Marat, just after he was stabbed in the bath by Charlotte Corday. In her version of Marat, the sick and ugly visage is very different to the terrifying propaganda painting by Jacques-Louis David.

The waxworks became a very dangerous place, as it was illegal to have busts and figures of people no longer deemed acceptable. Towards the height of the Terror, Tussaud was arrested and imprisoned. When she was released, to cast the guillotined head of Robespierre, the Revolution was over. When Curtius died a few years later in 1794, he left her everything, but now she was on her own. Hoping to strengthen her position, she married a hapless engineer called Tussaud, who nearly sank her whole business. As France became fixated on a single man – Napoleon – Tussaud left Paris and her husband to bring some history to England so we could see it. For a fee, of course.

Imagine how extraordinary it was for a Londoner in the early 1800s to be shown exact replicas of famous faces of the time. Here, she said, is history. And she related her own role in it to fascinated audiences: she had lived at Versailles, been art tutor to Louis XVI’s sister and cast the king from life and later, during the Revolution, been ordered by the National Convention to duplicate his severed head. There was the king’s blood in her lap. Listen, she was saying: I am history. She may have embellished her life, perhaps exaggerated here and there, but who can blame her for that – she needed her enterprise to succeed.

By the time I came to be employed at Madame Tussauds, the Andersen and Fawkes figures that spooked me as a child had been cleared away, but many of her originals remained: Franklin, Voltaire, Madame du Barry (in the role of the sleeping beauty, her chest moving up and down thanks to a clockwork device), Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre’s head and Marat’s stabbed body. And there was her waxwork self-portrait.

The figures cast by Tussaud herself have a different presence than the more recent ones. I stood beside them and studied them very carefully; I was employed, along with 20 or so others, to stop people from touching the waxworks. It was not a very skilled job. Being alone with the waxworks, either at the beginning or end of the day, was always disquieting. You couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them. They were very close to appearing alive (and they often wore their subjects’ actual clothes) but in the end they were only partial personalities. They seemed to know this and resent it.

And then the silence would be broken: in charged the public, pointing hither and thither, standing next to Gandhi and pretending it was actually hm. As children we pretend to give our dolls life – here’s the adult version of it. We stand beside a waxwork of Churchill or Hitler, and see how our heights and shapes compared to theirs. We want to know the precise amount of space that Marie Antoinette took up, and to know what her head looked like after it was cut off. At its heart, Tussauds isn’t about history: it’s a museum of the human body. It’s all about physiognomy – not about what these people achieved, but what they looked like. How wonderfully various we are! It was often disturbing to see how real people behaved in front of the wax people. In the end you had to conclude that the wax people had more dignity.

The longer I worked there, the more I studied the original Tussaud waxworks and learned of her life. I wanted to write about her, this strange woman unafraid of viscera. I started writing a novel about her 15 years ago and have only managed to finish it now. I kept being confused by the waxworks, I couldn’t get their spirits right. But after abandoning the project and returning to it again and again, I began to see Tussaud’s life as the most astounding survivor’s tale, the history of a small foreign woman, a little crumb caught up in history.

Tussaud, when pronounced correctly, is a rather soft name that possibly suited her weak husband. I love the fact that the announcement on the tube at the Baker Street station calls out an oft-used mispronunciation, “alight here for Madame Two-Swords’”. It is, somehow, more fitting.

She died at the age of 89 in 1850, just as the first stirrings of mass-market photography were beginning to emerge. I like to think of this as a deliberate act; leaving us before the invention of photography could trap her. Instead, she is preserved only in wax.