Dec 012013


Happy birthday  (1761) to Marie Tussaud Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud, famed wax sculptor and founder of Madame Tussauds waxworks.  She was born in Strasbourg in France. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for Dr. Philippe Curtius in Bern in Switzerland, who was a physician skilled in wax modeling used in teaching anatomy originally.

Curtius moved to Paris in 1765 to establish a cabinet de portraits en cire (wax portrait exhibition). In that year, he made a waxwork of Louis XV’s last mistress, Madame du Barry, a cast that is the oldest work currently on display. A year later, Tussaud and her mother joined Curtius in Paris. The first exhibition of Curtius’ waxworks was shown in 1770 and attracted a large crowd. In 1776, the exhibition was moved to the Palais Royal and, in 1782, Curtius opened a second exhibit, the Caverne des Grands Voleurs, a precursor to the later chamber of horrors, on Boulevard du Temple.

It was Curtius who taught Tussaud the art of wax modeling. She showed talent for the technique and began working for him as an artist. In 1777, she created her first wax figure, that of Voltaire.


From 1780 until the Revolution in 1789, Tussaud created many of her most famous portraits of celebrities such as  Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. At the same time, she remained on good terms with the French royal family. She claimed in later years to have been employed to teach votive making to Élisabeth the sister of Louis XVI. In her memoirs, Tussaud said that it was in this capacity that she was frequently privy to private conversations between the princess and her brother and members of his court. She also said that members of the royal family were so pleased with her work that she was invited to live at Versailles.

In Paris, Tussaud became involved in the French Revolution and met many of its important figures including Napoleon Bonaparte and Robespierre. On 12 July 1789, wax heads of Jacques Necker and the duc d’Orléans made by Curtius were carried in a protest march two days before the attack on the Bastille. Tussaud was arrested during the Reign of Terror together with Joséphine de Beauharnais and her head was shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine. However, thanks to Collot d’Herbois’ support for Curtius and his household, she was released. Tussaud was then employed to make death masks of the victims of the guillotine, including some of the Revolution’s most infamous dead such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre. Her death masks were held up as revolutionary flags and paraded through the streets of Paris. Soon, Tussaud was searching through piles of bodies collecting the most illustrious heads she could find.


When Curtius died in 1794, he left his collection of wax works to Tussaud. In 1795, she married François Tussaud. The couple had two children, Joseph and François. In 1802 she went to London, having accepted an invitation from Paul Philidor, a magic lantern and phantasmagoria pioneer, to exhibit her work alongside his show at the Lyceum Theatre in London. She did not fare particularly well financially, with Philidor taking half of her profits. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, she was unable to return to France, so she travelled throughout Great Britain and Ireland exhibiting her collection. From 1831 she took a series of short leases on the upper floor of “Baker Street Bazaar” (on the west side of Baker Street, Dorset Street, and King Street), which later featured in the Druce-Portland case sequence of trials of 1898-1907. This became Tussaud’s first permanent home in 1836.


One of the main attractions of her museum was the Chamber of Horrors. This part of the exhibition included victims of the French Revolution and newly created figures of murderers and other criminals. The name is often credited to a contributor to Punch in 1845, but Marie appears to have originated it herself, using it in advertising as early as 1843.

Other famous people were added to the exhibition, including Horatio Nelson, and Sir Walter Scott, and some of the sculptures done by Marie Tussaud herself still exist. The gallery originally contained about 400 different figures, but fire damage in 1925, coupled with German bombs in 1941, has rendered most of these older models unusable. However, the molds themselves have survived (allowing the historical waxworks to be remade), and these can be seen in the museum’s history exhibit. The oldest figure on display is that of Madame du Barry. Other faces from the time of Tussaud include Robespierre, George III, and Benjamin Franklin. In 1842, she made a self portrait which is now on display at the entrance of her museum. She died in her sleep on 15 April 1850.


By 1883 the restricted space and rising cost of the Baker Street site prompted her grandson (Joseph Randall) to commission the building at its current location on Marylebone Road. The new exhibition galleries were opened on 14 July 1884 and were a great success. However, the building costs, falling so soon after buying out his cousin Louisa’s half share in the business in 1881, meant the business was under-funded. A limited company was formed in 1888 to attract fresh capital but had to be dissolved after disagreements between the family shareholders, and in February 1889 Tussaud’s was sold to a group of businessmen led by Edwin Josiah Poyser. Edward White, an artist dismissed by the new owners to save money, allegedly sent a parcel bomb to John Theodore Tussaud in June 1889 in revenge.

Madame Tussaud’s wax museum has now grown to become a major tourist attraction in London, incorporating (until 2010) the London Planetarium in its west wing. It has expanded and will expand with branches in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, Blackpool, Hollywood, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York City, Shanghai, Sydney, Vienna and Washington, D.C. Today’s wax figures at Tussauds include historical and royal figures, film stars, sports stars and famous murderers. Known as “Madame Tussauds” museums (no apostrophe), they are owned by a leisure company called Merlin Entertainments, following the acquisition of The Tussauds Group in May 2007.


In July 2008, Madame Tussauds’ Berlin branch became embroiled in controversy when a 41-year-old German man brushed past two guards and decapitated a wax figure depicting Adolf Hitler. This was believed to be an act of protest against showing the ruthless dictator alongside sports heroes, movie stars, and other historical figures. However, the statue has since been repaired and the perpetrator has admitted he attacked the statue to win a bet. The original model of Hitler, unveiled in Madame Tussauds London in April 1933 was frequently vandalized and a replacement in 1936 had to be carefully guarded.

I have extremely fond memories of Madame Tussauds as a teenager in the 60’s when I would frequently spend the afternoon there.  You entered on the main floor where, in two large halls, were displayed, in semi-random fashion, waxworks of the famous.  The figures on display changed as the fortunes of individuals rose and fell.  I remember the big hoopla, for example, when the figures of the Beatles were first unveiled.


On the second floor was a series of alcoves with individual tableaux, the most famous of which was Sleeping Beauty, made by Madame Tussaud herself, and featuring a clockwork mechanism that simulated the rise and fall of Sleeping Beauty’s chest as she breathed in her sleep.  Beside her was the image of Madame Tussaud in old age, also created by Madame Tussaud.


In the next alcove was a tableau of the young Marie mixing plaster to make death masks during the French Revolution.

In the basement was the Chamber of Horrors.  Around the perimeter of the room were alcoves showing various famous murderers, including Crippen and Lee Harvey Oswald.


One exhibit that impressed me was of a famous 19th century female poisoner, at the front of which was a glass dome containing a lump of half chewed toffee that was purportedly being chewed by a baby at the time her mother was poisoned.  Very creepy. In the middle of the room was a long glass case containing the actual death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre made by Madame Tussaud.  Electrifying.


I also remember the great excitement when Madame Tussauds opened a new room that replicated action on the gun deck of HMS Victory during the battle of Trafalgar.  I was a big Nelson (and Hornblower) nut at the time, so I had to go as soon as I could. It was a terrific display complete with lights simulating the flash of canon fire and a deafening sound track of explosions and myriad shouting voices. But the true wonder of the exhibit was the smell of the room. They had aerosols all around spraying a potent mix of the smell of gunpowder, blood, and vomit into the room – a daring move. I loved it.


I took my son to Tussauds in the 90’s on a trip to London after we had seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey.  I have to say I was a little disappointed. It was all showy and glitzy, dominated by modern celebs, and thronging with people.  I wanted my funky old Madame Tussauds back.  The march of “progress.” Fortunately I have a good visual memory.

It may surprise you to learn that wax has a culinary use.  It is often added to chocolate because it creates a glossy sheen and prevents chocolate coatings from melting as quickly in hot weather.  I have never done this so I nicked a recipe from here:


1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 lb. confectioners sugar
3 tbsp. maple flavoring
1 c. chopped walnuts


4 sq. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cake paraffin wax (2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches)
12 oz. chocolate chips

Stir maple flavoring into condensed milk and add slowly to confectioners sugar in a large bowl. Mixture will be very thick. Mix in chopped nuts. With your hands, roll small amounts into ball and dip in chocolate mixture.

For chocolate dip, melt unsweetened chocolate and paraffin in the top of a double boiler over water (medium-high heat). Lower heat temperature and add chocolate chips, stir to melted. Keep temperature low enough to maintain a melt, and to keep the chocolate thickened. Dip balls of center mixture, one at a time, and place on waxed paper to cool.

These keep well for a long time and may be made weeks before needed.