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A 200-year-old legacy that's set in wax

Madam Tussauds is practically a household name. How did the empire begin?

Once Maris found a permanent home for her waxworks, she began focusing on the finer details.

Once Maris found a permanent home for her waxworks, she began focusing on the finer details.

Madame Tussauds was founded and successfully managed as a profitable business by a woman, Marie, who lived in an era when her gender was virtually barred from business undertakings. Mary Galea Debono maintains this says it all about the intrepid and shrewd creator of waxworks.

Marie Tussaud’s decision in 1835 to establish a permanent home for her waxworks in London was taken for practical reasons, but it turned out to be also a momentous one. Marie was 74; too old to cope with the strains and difficulties of touring the main cities with her exhibition, but still capable of managing, with the aid of her two sons, the business enterprise she had created.

Marie Tussaud as an old woman, based on a drawing attributed to one of her sons, Francis.Marie Tussaud as an old woman, based on a drawing attributed to one of her sons, Francis.

There were other valid reasons for the step she took; transportation of her works was costly and the exhibits often arrived damaged during the handling. With the improvement of the railway network, she soon realised there was no need for her to take her waxworks to other cities; visitors who were keen on seeing the collection could just as easily make the trip to the capital. Aware of the importance of being within easy reach, she made sure the first place she leased for her permanent display was in Portman Square, which was close to the main railway stations.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, waxworks were not only commissioned as portraits. Recreations of the famous and infamous, exhibited as collections, became a very popular form of entertainment, which attracted many visitors. It was a craft that required great technical skills.

The great thing about Marie’s exhibition is that, unlike other similar collections, hers has not only survived into the 21st century, but the company that now owns it also has several branches all over the world.

The entertainment industry is well known to be a changeable one; what is all the rage to one generation is often considered passé by the next one. It is a challenging industry, competitive and in constant need of innovation.

Yet Madame Tussauds, as the exhibition is now known as, remains one of London’s main tourist attractions. This says a lot not only about the skill and technique – great though they were – of this remarkable woman, but also about her vision and entrepreneurship; that it was founded and successfully managed as a profitable business by a woman who lived in an era when her gender was virtually barred from business undertakings says everything about this intrepid and shrewd woman.

Learning the ropes

Marie learnt the techniques of wax modelling from Philippe Curtius, a Swiss doctor living in Bern, who started making his models for the study of human anatomy, but later abandoned his medical profession to set up a waxworks business in Paris. Marie’s mother, Anna Maria Grosholtz, was his housekeeper, and soon after settling in this city, where his new business flourished, Philippe sent for her and her six-year-old daughter to join him there.

Marie’s exact relationship with Philippe is shrouded in mystery. Her memoirs, which she wrote with the help of Henri Hervé, a family friend, rather than clarifying the picture, simply raise more questions. Marie does not seem to have been after the whole truth and nothing but the truth when she decided to tell the story of her early years; she was more interested in creating her own myth about her connections with the French royal house and her familiarity with life in Versailles, where she claimed to have spent some time.

Her father was Johann Grosholtz, a soldier who fought and died in the Seven Years’ War, and her mother was Anna Marie Walder, daughter of a Swiss clergyman, who, according to her memoirs, had several sons by a previous marriage.

As Rachel Knowles points out in her book What Regency Women Did For Us, this detail cannot be true as according to the records in a Catholic Church in Strasbourg, Marie was baptised in December 1761 in the same church where her mother had been baptised 18 years earlier. Later, Marie was legally adopted by Philippe.

Bloody inventiveness

Marie received very little formal education, but she was intelligent and her aptitude for wax modelling was remarkable. In 1778, she made her first wax figure of the French philosopher Voltaire.

This was a period of widespread political and social turmoil in France. Although both Marie and Philippe were probably royalist, it soon became obvious to both of them that they had to adjust to the new state of affairs if they wanted to survive.

When one revolutionary leader fell from grace, they swiftly removed his model and, not to risk retribution, replaced it by that of the new favourite. Models of richly attired members of the French royal family, engaged in aristocratic pastimes, were also unacceptable. Instead, Philippe and Marie started recreating scenes of the brutalities that were happening on an almost daily basis. Marie was often to be seen near the guillotine, making casts of the heads that had just been cruelly dismembered by its sharp blade.

In revolutionary France, Marie Tussaud had to be inventive to ensure survival.In revolutionary France, Marie Tussaud had to be inventive to ensure survival.

Both Philippe and Marie understood that the more gruesome the action, the more it appealed to the bloodthirsty masses. When Marat, one of the leading revolutionaries, was murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corder, Marie was asked by the National Assembly to make a waxwork of the victim, and the murderer herself asked her to make one of her before she went to the guillotine. This morbid scene soon became one of the exhibits that visitors flocked to see.

Becoming Tussaud

In 1794, Philippe died, bequeathing the waxworks to Marie, who carried on with the business. The following year, she married François Tussaud, an engineer a few years younger than herself.

She may have thought that, in her position, a husband by her side was a shield and protection against a society that was not prepared to accept her in her role as entrepreneur. But if that was her reasoning she was mistaken – François was better at spending money than at making it.

However, Marie was shrewd enough to foresee such a possibility, and contrary to the prevailing custom, she drew up a marriage settlement that made sure she kept control of her property.

Marie’s first child died in infancy, but two other sons were born later. With the help of her mother and her aunt, who lived with her, she was able to carry on with her work.

Marie Tussaud always sought out cities where important events were happening.Marie Tussaud always sought out cities where important events were happening.

But the business was not doing very well and when a certain Paul Philipstal, who was taking his magic lantern show to London, offered her to accompany him, she immediately accepted the opportunity. Perhaps she also saw in this opening a chance to get away from her husband.

The arrangement was that she would share the profits with Paul, while he would cover the cost of travelling and advertisement. She took with her the elder four-year-old son and left the younger one in the care of his grandmother.

Marie and Paul set up their show at the Lyceum Theatre. She divided her exhibition into two rooms, and by separating the more macabre exhibits – Marat’s murder in the bath was one of them – from the rest of the other 30, she could charge an extra sixpence for them. This separate display later came to be known as the Chamber of Horrors.

When the London season ended, Marie and Paul moved their exhibitions to Edinburgh in Scotland. Their stay coincided with the horse show that attracted many visitors to the city and Marie grasped this opportunity to double the entrance fee to her show. Thereafter, she always sought cities and towns where important events were happening; visitors to such cities were more willing to pay to see her waxworks.

An eye for business

Profit was all important for Marie, but she knew that to keep making it, she had to be innovative in her approach. One of the first things she did was to issue a brochure with a brief historical background of every character, charging sixpence for it. This enhanced and added value to the experience; the entertainment could now be described as educational and family oriented.

Marie eventually felt that Paul was not contributing enough to the success and profit of the enterprise. He had earlier shown that he was an unreliable partner, having failed to fulfill his promise of advertising her waxworks and paying fully for her travel costs. She considered him just a drain on her income and decided to buy him out. In 1808, she became the sole owner and manager of her waxworks.

In the meantime, her husband in France was not doing well. She had no intention of returning, where, according to law, she would have had to hand over all income to him. Convinced that he would simply live off her earning and contribute nothing, she transferred her French property to him, but refused to share any profits.

Marie continued to tour the main cities, stopping longer in some when the going was good and packing up early when customers decreased. She added more works, including the British royal family, which the public loved, as well as the protagonists of the events of the time, such as the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo. Marie also made a mask of Napoleon when his ship stopped at Portsmouth on the way to his exile on the island of St Helena.

Once Marie found a permanent home for her waxworks, she could focus more on the finer details of her exhibition. She dressed her models in authentic clothes where possible, and when she could not procure these, she made faithful replicas. Queen Victoria allowed her to make a copy of her clothes for the tableau of her coronation.

Marie collected memorabilia of the people she modelled to set up lifelike tableaux and, where possible, she added paintings. In the case of Napoleon, she succeeded in acquiring a huge collection of his relics, which included, among other things, his abandoned carriage after his defeat in Waterloo. Unfortunately, all these, and much more, were destroyed in 1884 when the new purpose-built building in Marylebone Street was gutted by fire.

Marie’s approach to business was avant-garde; she introduced background music, and as profit-making remained her ultimate goal, she not only made and sold silhouettes of her models, but also set up an area between the main exhibition and the Chamber of Horrors from where visitors could buy refreshments.

Marie transferred her business to her two sons, in this way making sure her husband was cut off from any profits, but she remained involved in it until a few months before her death in 1850. Her last waxwork was a model of herself.

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