Madame Tussauds

Strasbourg-born Marie Grosholtz, known to the world as Madame Tussaud (1761-1850), was introduced to the craft of wax model making when her impoverished mother took a position as housekeeper to young Swiss physician Philippe Curtius who earned a reputation for anatomically correct wax miniatures ostensibly made for medical research. In truth, Curtius’s ‘Anatomical Venuses’ with flip-open navels were considered erotic and earned him the patronage of the Prince de Conti. De Conti, a cousin of King Louis XV, invited Curtius to Paris where he set up a salon of wax erotic tableaux on the Rue Saint-Honoré.

A six-year old Marie would accompany Curtius’s household to Paris and the wax artist became something of a father figure and mentor to the child. When Louis XV died in 1774, Curtius had already found fame sculpting wax figures of celebrated people of the day. His most popular figures included the new king Louis XVI and his Austrian queen the fashion leader Marie Antoinette. In something of a coup, Curtius collaborated with the queen’s dressmaker Rose Bertin who made identical gowns for Marie Antoinette’s effigy.

Marie’s first wax display model was the philosopher Voltaire (1777) and she soon showed an aptitude as great as her mentor for modelling in eerily lifelike flesh tones. As well as the great, Curtius also sculpted the infamous who he displayed in La Caverne des Grands Voleurs: the precursor of Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. In her memoirs Madame Tussaud claims that she became an art tutor of Louis XVI’s sister Madame Elizabeth in 1780 and actually lived at Versailles. A great self-publicist, Madame Tussaud may have invented this episode in her young life.

On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, the mob commandeered Curtius’s wax heads of the Duc d’Orléans and finance minister Necker to parade on pikes through Paris. When the guillotine began its gruesome work Curtius and Marie were employed to model wax death masks of The Terror’s most celebrated victims including the Princess de Lamballe, Madame DuBarry, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Madame Elizabeth, Marat and his assassin Charlotte Corday.

Madame Tussaud’s memoirs relate that in 1794 she was denounced as a royalist and imprisoned in La Force; her head shaved in preparation for the guillotine. She claims a fellow cell mate was Josephine de Beauharnais, the future consort of the Emperor Napoleon thus posing the question whether Madame Tussaud was being economical with the truth once again. A year later Marie married François Tussaud but in 1802 she left him in France and took ship to England. For the next thirty-three years Madame Tussaud toured the British Isles with her travelling wax museum.

Like circus showman P. T. Barnum, Madame Tussaud was practised in the art of ballyhoo. She understood the power of publicity and sensation: ruthlessly beheading wax models of the once-famous and replacing them with new people of fascination such as Lord Nelson, Lady Hamilton, King George III and Queen Charlotte. Madame Tussaud kept the show on the road despite setbacks including losing many of her figures when shipwrecked en route to Ireland.

In 1835 trading as Madame Tussaud & Sons, the wax museum finally found a permanent home in the Baker Street Bazaar. By 1846 Punch magazine had coined the phrase ‘Chamber of Horrors’ for the display of French Revolutionary severed heads, the guillotine blade that sliced through Marie Antoinette’s neck and models of murderers of the day. Madame Tussaud died in 1850 and in 1884 her grandson moved Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to the Marylebone Road sight it still occupies today. A wax effigy of Madame Tussaud modelled by the lady herself is still on display at the entrance of the museum.

Henry Poole & Co’s working relationship with Madame Tussaud began in the 1870s after her death. Poole’s had by the 1870s forged the house’s reputation as tailor to European and Russian royal households so they were the natural choice of Savile Row tailor to make uniforms and liveries for Madame Tussaud’s royal wax models including the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), the Duke of Connaught, Major General Lord Chelmsford, the King of the Belgians, the King of Italy, Edward VIIs sons Prince Albert Victor and Prince George, King George I of Greece, Emperor Napoleon III of the French and their son the Prince Imperial, the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, Czarevitch Nicholas of Russia (the future Emperor Nicholas II) and the Prince Bismarck (the ‘Iron Chancellor’ of Prussia).

All the aforementioned names were also customers of Henry Poole & Co in life as in wax. A devastating fire in 1925 destroyed many of the garments tailored for Madame Tussaud by Henry Poole & Co. Any survivors were probably lost in 1940 during the Blitz when a German bomb scored a direct hit on Madame Tussaud’s.

(c) James Sherwood

Photo © (c) James Sherwood Collection