Some 20 years ago, in a freefall from university and picking up odd jobs in London, I spent a few months working at Madame Tussauds. Like countless others, I had been taken to the wax museum as a child and blessed with nightmares from the experience. Guy Fawkes crouching by a barrel of gunpowder had terrified me, as had a peculiarly pockmarked waxwork of Hans Christian Andersen. The Chamber of Horrors was certainly upsetting, but not as much as the tableau of the Battle of Trafalgar. This had noise and lights and you felt you were standing on the gun deck of HMS Victory and there – you could almost see him breathing his last – was the bloody, pale body of Horatio Nelson.
But the greatest waxwork in Madame Tussauds is of Tussaud herself. A very small old woman, with a large nose and chin, dressed in suitably chilling Victorian bombazine, stands guard over the rest of the wax populace. There’s something mythical about her, as if she were a character from folklore or fairytale. There’s something a little cockroachy about her, too. She feels made up, she seems like a story.
But she was a real person, and this waxwork is a self-portrait of the artist and businesswoman who founded one of London’s most famous and enduring attractions. She was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France in 1761 and died in London in 1850. Between those dates she met, and often modelled from life, the most famous personages in history.
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.
Source: The Guardian