History : Sep-Oct 2018
8 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018 PROFILES far as having her head shaved in prepara- tion for execution. In return for clemency, both she and Curtius are said to have tak- en on a gruesome task—sculpting death masks of the executed. There is, in fact, little evidence outside Tussaud’s own account that she directly sculpted masks of the freshly guillotined king or the assassinated revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, although models of these figures did find their way into Curtius’s collection. Despite the uncer- tainty, the notion of Tussaud undertak- ing such grisly work became one of the most famous aspects of her life story. As the English poet Hilaire Belloc wrote with wonder: “The hand that modeled Marat was a hand of Marat’s age. It touched the flesh of the dead man.” Fame and Fortune Philippe Curtius died in September 1794 and left Marie the sole heir of his waxwork museums. A year later Marie married François Tussaud, an engineer, and later had two sons, Joseph in 1798 and François in 1800. The marriage grew strained, and times were hard, and Tussaud’s waxworks business was almost ruined by the rav- ages of revolution. The Madame Tus- sauds empire might well have never be- gun had she not met the German illusion- ist Paul Philidor. A pioneer in the use of the “magic lantern,” which projected colored slides of ghosts and ghouls, Phi- lidor mounted elaborate spectacles known as phantasmagoria. The public was ripe for this kind of new sensory ex- perience and clamored for more. Philidor suggested to Tussaud that they combine his projections with her wax figures to create a joint show for the Lyceum Theater in London. She agreed, and in 1802 traveled to England, to try her luck in a land untouched by turmoil. She was, however, disappointed with the show, complaining that Philidor was fail- ing to promote her startling, lifelike fig- ures. Toughened by the years of danger and revolution in France, this slightly built woman, now in her 40s, decided to go into business for herself and strike out alone in a new country. Loading her precious waxworks into rail carriages, Madame Tussaud set off on a touring exhibition around the British Isles that would last, on and off, for a pe- riod of nearly 30 years. Free of Philidor and relying on her own entrepreneurial instincts, Tussaud met with instant fame. The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror awoke fascination, repugnance, and pity in the British, and Tussaud’s cre- ations—Marat stabbed in his bath, the doomed King Louis, and even a model of a guillotine—brought her public face-to- face with the 19th-century equivalent of virtual reality. MARIE PREPARES a death mask from a severed head during the Reign of Terror. Madame Tussauds, London GRANGER/AURIMAGES A MODEL FAMILY AGE FOTOSTOCK THE SCULPTING GENE was strong in Tussaud’s family, and her successors turned the museum into a lucrative family business. Even after it was no longer in the family’s hands, Tussaud’s great-grandson, John Theodore Tussaud, was museum manager until the 1940s. He wrote a biogra- phy of his great- grandmother and was a respected modeler in his own right, sculpting busts of contem- porary figures, like Christabel Pankhurst (left), a suf- fragette im- prisoned in the early 1900s.