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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London

What is Madame Tussauds?

Madame Tussauds is a museum of waxwork statues of famous and historical people that was founded in 1835 by Marie Tussaud, once court artist to King Louis XVI of France.

Madame Tussauds Royals

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Madame Tussauds History

Wax figures moulded in the images of Parisian royalty, of philosophers and poets, and casts of victims of the guillotine: Marie Tussaud’s work reflected her own turbulent life. Raised crafting waxen hearts and expendable anatomy in Switzerland, she learnt to model wax from a local doctor called Philippe Curtius (for whom Marie’s mother was housekeeper), whose portrait of Louis XV’s last mistress is the world’s oldest displayed wax figure.

In her first foray into independent artistry, Marie created her first likeness in 1777, the celebrated philosopher Voltaire. This depiction, followed by those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, established her reputation for vividly lifelike caricatures. She was invited to join the court of King Louis XVI, to work on her sculptures in collaboration with the crown, and to teach the king’s sister Élisabeth her craft. But what had reasonably struck her as an ideal opportunity turned out to be a nightmare.

Deemed a royal sympathiser, Marie was imprisoned by French Revolutionaries as the Reign of Terror commenced, and had her head shaved in preparation for the guillotine. Fortunately a family friend of Curtius, her Swiss mentor, helped secure her release, however she was instructed by the authorities to create death masks and whole body casts for the revolutionaries' spoils: the bodies of Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien Robespierre, and King Louis XVI.

Madame Tussauds Donald Trump

In 1802, Tussaud came to London. Her intention was to travel around Britain, bringing a display of her greatest likenesses on a touring exhibition. The advent of the Napoleonic Wars rendered a return journey impossible, and so Tussaud’s road show went on far longer than planned. She travelled all over Britain for three decades as an itinerant entrepreneur. In 1835, in her mid-70s, Marie settled permanently in London and opened her first permanent exhibition on Baker Street. Madame Tussaud’s museum stunned its early visitors through its extraordinary likenesses of famous faces of the time (remember there were very few opportunities for the public to see these notable figures).

After a life of royal residences, revolution, and road shows, Tussaud died in 1850 at the age of 88. She left behind a self-portrait, a statue that stands at the entrance of the London museum. Museums bearing her name now house wax collections all across the world. From Amsterdam to Istanbul, New York to Tokyo, Vienna to New Delhi, Marie Tussaud’s travelling show has stretched far beyond her Baker Street home.

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