Back Story

12 01 marie tussaudToday is the birthday of Marie Tussaud (Madame Tussaud), who was born on this day in 1761 in Strasbourg, which was at the time, in France. Madame Tussaud opened her first permanent wax museum in Baker Street, London in 1835. If you’ve ever wonder how a French Lady in her mid-seventies came to be in London with loads of life-sized wax models, and most particularly, a chamber of horrors, here is her back story:

Her father was killed in the Seven Years War, before she was even born, and her mother went to work as housekeeper for a doctor called Philippe Curtius. Dr Curtius was very good at making wax anatomical models and he eventually branched out making portraits of people in wax. In 1765, he moved to Paris to open a wax museum and Marie and her mother joined him the following year. Curtius began to teach his modelling techniques to Marie and she soon showed promise. She made her first model, of Voltaire, in 1777. Their exhibition moved to the Palais Royal, which belonged to Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, when he opened it to the public in 1784. The Palais Royal was filled with fancy shops and theatres, was frequented by prostitutes, was a hotbed of the Revolution and the place to be seen.

Curtius and Marie cast the heads of their wax models from life, using the straws up the nose, plaster round the head technique. As many of their models were of Royalty, this put them on pretty good terms with some very important people. With no photography, a wax model was really the most realistic image of a person you could get, and preserve for posterity. They had two separate exhibitions. There was the celebrity part where you could see wax busts of famous people. There were also full body models. The royal family eating dinner was a very popular exhibit, so was Marie Antoinette preparing for bed. You could stare as much as you wanted and nobody got embarrassed about it. Then there was the ‘Caverne des Grands Voleurs’, a kind of chamber of horrors in which you could find tableaux of all the latest executions, in case you’d missed the real thing, or just needed more time to take in all the gory details. These too, were cast from the real individuals, but of course in those cases, you didn’t need to bother with the straws up the nose.

07 14 bastilleSo Marie was already accustomed to some pretty grim sights. Then, the French Revolution happened. Significantly, two days before the storming of the Bastille, a mob turned up at their museum asking to borrow their busts of Necker, a recently dismissed finance minister, and Louis Philippe who were both at that time heroes of the revolutionaries. They took them and paraded them about Paris and were attacked by the Royal Guard for doing so. Two days later, when the prison was attacked and its Governor killed, the mob brought his head to Marie and forced her make a cast and a wax model of it. Nine days later, two more men had been killed, the new finance minister and his son-in-law. Curtius and Marie were asked to model their heads as well.

In this way, they mostly managed to distance themselves from the royal family and their museum became, instead, the place to go to check on the progress of the Revolution and find out who had been beheaded. They had to keep making the casts to stay on the right side of the revolutionaries. Marie made death masks of both Marie Antoinette and the King, along with many other people she had known in life. Marie was arrested and thrown in prison during the Reign of Terror, suspected of being a royal sympathiser. She was so close to being guillotined that her head had been shaved. But Curtius managed to pull some strings and get her set free. While she was there, she met another lady in a similar predicament. Her name was Josephine de Beauharnais. She also escaped with her life and later married Napoleon Bonaparte and years later Josephine introduced Marie to the Emperor and she made models of both of them.

When Curtius died in 1794, he left her his collection of waxworks. The following year, she married Mr Tussaud and by 1802, they had two sons. She travelled to Britain with her models, and also one of her sons. There she exhibited alongside Paul Philidor who had a magic lantern show that projected ghost-like images onto smoke, which sounds exciting. It wasn’t particularly financially successful for her but she never returned to France. Instead, she spent the next thirty-three years travelling Britain and Ireland with her models before finally settling in at the Baker Street Bazaar. People were fascinated by the events of the French Revolution and were eager to see her work. But she never publicly displayed her death masks of the King and Queen.

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