How Madame Tussauds built a business out of beheadings
Modern techniques and advanced artistry lends the wax figures a hyper-reality that can be off-putting to some, astounding to others. However, the history of the most famous waxworks of them all, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, is a dark one. Madame Tussauds has branches all over and is the place to go to see movie stars, politicians, athletes and royalty up close – if not quite in the flesh and blood. The history of this museum has been a story of art, death, revolution and fame which remains hidden beneath the modern museum’s public-friendly exterior. This is a tale of gruesome masks, bloody revolution and one of the 19th century’s most successful business women.
Anna Maria “Marie” Tussauds was born as Anna Maria Grosholtz on 1 December 1761 in Strasbourg, France. Surviving a dangerous and gruesome past, she had made herself a household name in her adopted country and Madame Tussauds has remained one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions to this day. She never knew her father, a German soldier named Grosholtz, having died of gruesome war wounds. Her young widowed mother, Anne Marie, brought the child up at Berne in Switzerland, where she worked as a housekeeper for Dr Philippe Curtius, who had a talent for wax modelling and ran a museum of his waxwork heads and busts. Dr Curtius considered the girl a prized pupil. Her first sculpture was a likeness of Voltaire.
During the French Revolution, Madame Tussauds was imprisoned. During this time, she was ordered to create plaster casts and death masks of the victims of the guillotine. The work required equal comfort in palaces and in prisons, and a certain ease with the grotesque: in her memoirs, Tussauds claimed that she sat “on the steps of the exhibition, with the bloody heads on her knees, taking the impressions of their features.” Success in waxworks involved not only artistic skill and patience, but an ear to the ground and fast feet: when Charlotte Corday murdered the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub, Marie got to the scene so fast that the killer was still being processed by law enforcement as she started work on Marat’s death mask.
In 1802, a 40-year-old Marie was saddled with a lazy, spendthrift husband, two children and the faltering business Curtius had left on his death. And, she decided to seek her fortune abroad. She left her youngest child with her mother and aunt, packed up with her four-year-old son and a duffel bag of disembodied aristocratic wax heads, and left for England to achieve a “well-filled purse”. She knew that the public, then as now, would go nuts for two things: royal fever and horror shows, and she gladly provided immersion in both. The Chamber of Horrors paid tribute to the Revolution with a working scale-model guillotine, and the heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, the latter grimly squashed in, to reflect the botched suicide attempt in which Robespierre allegedly shot off half of his own jaw. As the terror took its toll, Marie was forced to make casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, many of whom had been her uncle’s friends and dinner guests.
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