- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Sometimes it takes unvarnished opportunism to get a head. Marie Tussaud knew this, and in 1789 when angry and lawless masses attacked the Bastille, killed two of its defenders and hoisted their heads on a spike, the young Frenchwoman “sat on the steps of the exhibition with the bloody heads on her knees, taking the impressions of their features.” Or so she would have us believe.

In “Madame Tussaud and the Waxworks,” Pamela Pilbeam notes that the 19th-century entrepreneur made other questionable claims in a memoir she wrote at the end of her life. Notable among these is her assertion that she lived at Versailles in order to tutor the king’s sister Madame Elizabeth “in the technique of wax modeling.” Ms. Pilbeam writes that “there is no proof that [Madame Tussaud] ever lived at Versailles. She is not listed in any of the royal almanacs, nor does she appear on any royal payroll.”

Madame Tussaud a liar? A fraud? This cannot be. And it is, as Ms. Pilbeam shows, beside the point. Her subject most likely did visit Versailles from time to time in order to offer instruction. And one gathers from the evidence here that Madame Tussaud’s waxworks relied on the line between fantasy and reality staying firmly blurry.

The book opens with a general outline of roots of the family business. “The modern history of waxworks originated with Philippe Curtius’ two exhibitions in Paris in the 1770s. He trained Marie Grosholz, (the future Madame Tussaud, whom he always introduced as his niece but who was probably his daughter. She inherited the business when Curtius died in 1794.”

Later, after marrying Francois Tussaud, Madame Tussaud took advantage of the peace between England and France and crossed to England in 1802, never to return to her husband. She was 41 when she began her touring career (with a 4-year-old son in tow) and 74 when she finally settled in Baker Street. When she died, her “exhibition was the most successful tourist venue in the country.” The exhibition was owned and run by her descendants until it became a limited company in the 1880s shortly after the move to its present site on Marleybone Road. “The last member involved in running the show died in 1967.”

This volume is, is at its core, business history. And since the Tussaud business has for over 150 years depended on the garish, ghoulish, pedestrian, fanciful, eerie, vulgar and marvelous, Ms. Pilbeam sets about the task of telling readers how wax modelling came to be and how it evolved, particularly in the hands of Madame Tussaud.

The writing here is brisk and engaging. Ms. Pilbeam enjoys Madame Tussaud and the wax empire she created. And her understated writing is a perfect match for her subject, a woman who was more than capable of detailing the “gruesome labor of modelling the severed heads of enemies of the Revolution” in a “matter-of-fact way.” However, in this quirky, amusing, well researched volume, it is Ms. Pilbeam who puts the “s” in sang-froid. Was it she who selected for inclusion in the volume the photograph of Robespierre’s head, modelled by Madame Tussaud in 1795?

And who chose to include the texts of 19th-century catalogues which luxuriate in lengthy descriptions of items to be found in the exhibit’s famous Chamber of Horrors. It contains, for the reader’s edification, tongue pincers, bolts from the Bastille and the “Mask of Ignominy.” The description of the last item relates how it was used “for unfaithful husbands, on whom it was placed, and who were then marched through the streets.”

But horror is the extreme side of what early (and later) visitors to the exhibition sought and found. There, one could also see all manner of domestic exhibits which showed onlookers how royalty, in particular, dressed, ate and designed their rooms. Any model or motif that grew unpopular with the crowds was simply melted down.

Ms. Pilbeam is at pains to show that Madame Tussaud was not the first to create wax models. Nor was she without competitors. Readers learn early that wax modelling is as old as the ancients. “While Christian and most ancient civilizations made ample use of wax, others, especially the Jewish and Muslim cultures, rejected it emphatically, believing that all representation was demonic, leading only to the fires of Hell.”

Ms. Pilbeam is particularly good at showing how Madame Tussaud’s exhibition bested any number of imitators who sprang up in London and Paris. “This was an age when it was assumed that leisure ought to involve a measure of education. In addition to the British Museum and embryonic National Gallery, numerous private establishments saw themselves as purveyors of popular education, particularly of natural history, anthropology and technology.”

And the early Madame Tussaud’s thrived in spite of competition from panoramas and dioramas and other sources of popular entertainment that were springing up everywhere.

Ms. Pilbeam demonstrates how the waxworks relied on certain themes to endure beyond wars, changes in cultural tastes and modern technology, and she offers insight about why human beings can’t stop looking at others of their species — finding glamour in the bejeweled (a bedecked Marie Antoinette was the rage) and, more embarrassingly, finding thrill in the bad and beheaded. (“The ‘Horrors’ drew the largest crowds and did most to please the broadest cross-section of the population.”

Ms. Pilbeam notes that “press criticism [of Madame Tussauds exhibits] increased in the second half of the nineteenth century: ‘It panders to a morbid, unhealthy, unfeeling curiosity,’ comparable to that which in times past drew people to cheer at the foot of the gallows.’”

And such tastes show no sign of abating. Although, tickets have gotten expensive, returning to “Madame’s desire to limit entrance to the prosperous middle classes,” in 2002 “Tussaud’s marketing was hard to escape and was an integral part of the itinerary of every organization running mass tourism. No self-respecting beaver, cub, scout, rosebud, brownie or guide could avoid a visit to at least of one of Tussaud’s venues and no foreign visitor could return home without tales of the waxworks.”

In the end, this thoroughly engaging book might have benefited from more information about Madame Tussaud herself, but readers are compensated by a description of a vivid endeavor that inspired the likes of Charles Dickens and Percy Shelley. And we learn that in the original exhibition there was a Sleeping Beauty that had a heart that beat. There is a Sleeping Beauty resting in Tussaud’s today, and the heart beats still.


By Pamela Pilbeam

Hambledon and London, $29.95, 287 pages, illus.

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