Resting place for heads of state

February 14, 2003

Royal death masks, revolutionary corpses and grisly, sensationalistic tableaux of gruesome murders. At Madame Tussaud's, Pamela Pilbeam found a remarkable historical archive, not just Kylie Minogue

Wax models, a remarkable and untapped historical resource? You raise an eyebrow? I was equally sceptical when in 1989 I talked to the employees of Madame Tussaud's about their founder's role in the French Revolution. Flanked by models of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (and rather anxious not to decapitate them - a dangerous hobby these days), it dawned on me that the heads of these fragile models were the most authentic representation of the pair in existence.

Madame Tussaud made the moulds, which still survive, both from life at Versailles, and from death after the guillotine had done its work. The wax modeller would embalm the head in clay, and this mould would be stored, so that the wax head could be reworked at will. The only difference between modelling a death mask and a live figure was that straws were inserted in the nostrils of the latter to allow them to breathe.

Madame Tussaud began her career in Paris as Marie Grosholz and was trained in the art of wax sculpture by Philippe Curtius, a Swiss doctor turned wax entrepreneur. Wax models had been used in medical training since the 16th century, while the 18th century's "Venuses" combined education with eroticism. Curtius made most money with private orders of erotic miniatures. Madame Tussaud always referred to him as her uncle, but he was probably her father and she his sole heir.

Before 1789 they ran two wax shows in the Palais Royal and the Boulevard du Temple, both fashionable hubs of entertainment, where the wealthy rubbed shoulders with artisans. The acclaimed centrepiece of their salon was a tableau of the royal family at dinner in Versailles. Curtius and Marie played a minor role in 1789. Their wax busts of Necker and the king's cousin, the duc d'Orleans, were carried aloft in the first real confrontation between royal troops and their critics on July 12. A few days later, Marie found herself sitting on the steps of the waxworks moulding the severed heads of the first victims of revolutionary violence. The waxworks became the venue where people could catch up on the death toll of the revolution. Probably the most striking was the murdered Marat, who today still lies in the Chamber of Horrors, though not in the original death bath (the musee Grevin claims to have acquired that).

Madame Tussaud recalled that, on a tip-off from the painter David, she arrived at the murder scene before Charlotte Corday had been taken away to prison. Strangely, David's painting of the assassination, still one of the most potent images of the Terror to judge by the frequency it is used on book jackets, was not painted from the corpse, but from the wax model.

Marat was murdered during particularly warm weather and was far too smelly to keep around while the painting was completed.

In 1802, after Curtius' death and an unsuccessful marriage with a handsome idler, Marie, just turned 40, packed her best moulds and models and took advantage of the Peace of Amiens to sail to Britain. There she repaired her fortunes, which had been depleted by the counter-attraction of the real guillotine during the Terror. She never returned to France.

Until 1835 she toured towns such as Bath and Brighton, where wealthy middle-class families "did" the season. The exhibition then settled in Baker Street. By the time of her death in 1850, Tussaud had created the most successful tourist attraction in London, competing with the Tower and Westminster Abbey.

Investigating why Madame Tussaud did so well probes the secrets of a profitable family business: careful accounting, flamboyant publicity, and a large number of obedient family workers. Locating waxworks in popular culture reveals even more to interest an historian. Tussaud's tuned into the developing museum culture.

In 1843, with much press attention, Madame Tussaud opened her "shrine" to Napoleon. In addition to wax models of the emperor and Josephine, which she had moulded herself, she included an unparalleled collection of Napoleon memorabilia that she had bought. This included the coach in which Napoleon had been almost captured after Waterloo. The British revelled in this "domestication" of the man who had threatened their security. Wellington frequently visited the wax effigy of his old enemy. The shrine attracted so many French visitors that Tussaud's published a special catalogue in French.

Napoleon III tried to buy the collection for Les Invalides, but when Madame's sons demanded £30,000, his agents retreated complaining at the "prostitution" of the emperor's memory. The Napoleon collection was destroyed in a fire that wrecked the exhibition in 1925.

Madame Tussaud's exhibition also helps us to understand the mindset of the Victorians. The recipe for success was a blend of glamour and horror, encapsulated in Tussaud's claim to "convey to young persons much biographical knowledge - a branch of education universally allowed to be of the highest importance".

She staged elaborate and often costly coronation displays that helped to make even little loved monarchs such as George IV and William IV attractive. William sold his brother's ostentatious coronation robes to Tussaud's. Victoria was a godsend, allowing Madame to order exact copies of her coronation and wedding robes. The queen and her many children visited the exhibition. When she withdrew from public life, the prominent royal tableaux made royalty seem still familiar, even approachable. When an image of her coronation was needed, Tussaud's display was used. In the 1850s the whole galaxy of British royals was added, helping to emphasise the continuity of a monarchist tradition.

Many children learnt their British history through such imaginative reconstructions and the mini-biographies in the detailed catalogues.

Opulent and expensive displays appealed to middle-class visitors, to whom Tussaud's advertising was at first directed. Horror had a wider appeal. The French Revolution exhibits were hugely popular because, unlike death heads in other wax shows, they were realistic. The British were thrilled that a Frenchwoman was prepared to demonstrate that the French were bloodthirsty barbarians. Madame soon added local colour, with a succession of executed villains. In the 1840s, Punch magazine dubbed Tussaud's "Adjoining Room" the Chamber of Horrors. An attempt to rename it the "Chamber of Comparative Physiognomy" was pushed aside by customers.

The changing face of the Horrors reveals what contemporaries considered acceptable for public display. In 1890, Eleanor Pearcey battered her lover's wife and baby to death in her sitting room. She shoved both corpses into the pram and abandoned them two miles away in Crossfield Road in London's Hampstead. While her trial was in progress, Tussaud's bought the contents of her sitting room and reconstructed it. They included the pram, the bloody cardigan the baby had been wearing, even the sweet it had been sucking. All was ready for the execution, just before the Christmas holidays. In three days 75,000 queued to see the tableau. Such a gruesome display is unimaginable today.

Tussaud's is of interest to historians, although the exhibition itself now has far less interest in history. The exhibition echoes fluctuations in popular culture. Tussaud's saw itself first as educator and part-museum, then as entertainer of the masses. In the 1970s, urged on by Sir Roy Strong, it toyed with wax as art. Tussaud's now prioritises media celebrities, displaying unprecedented quantities of wax "flesh" on the Kylie Minogue model. The models indicate popular interpretations of individuals; Churchill was redone ten times.

The construction of popular memory is reflected in the changes in the entries in their biographical catalogues. The numerous catalogue advertisements were a delightful guide to middle-class domestic culture.

Their business records may be a unique record, combining minute books with small diaries and memoirs. Most fascinating are Madame Tussaud's letters written to her family in the first few years after her arrival in Britain, her own account notebooks and the original head moulds, from which wax models can be endlessly reproduced, denying history, yet part of it.

Pamela Pilbeam is professor of French history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks , published by Hambledon and London, £19.95.

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