Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France (published in 1838) are not quite what you might expect, unless you have read the subtitle: Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution. Sadly, you will find out very little about Mme Tussaud’s long career as a portrait modeller in wax and the impresario of a waxworks museum. What her ‘editor’, Francis Hervé, in fact provides is indeed an abridged (and not entirely accurate) account of the Revolution, very much enlivened by anecdotes provided by the then elderly émigrée lady.
Anna Maria Grosholtz was born in 1760 or 1761, probably in Strasbourg, or possibly in Bern. (Her father was a soldier who married a widow with seven sons; his daughter was born posthumously.) The way Hervé tells it, her widowed mother was taken to Paris by her brother, Philippe Curtius, a Swiss physician and wax modeller for whom she had acted as housekeeper. However, there is no evidence that there was such a relationship, though the young Marie was brought up by Curtius as his niece, and she learnt from him the skills of working in wax which were later to provide her with an income and quite possibly save her life.
The move to Paris came about because the Prince de Conti, a member of the French royal family, has seen Curtius’ work and promised him patronage if he moved to France. Curtius flourished, and established both a wax exhibition in the Palais Royal and a salon which was attended by the ‘literati and artists’ of Paris, of whom ‘Mme Tussaud most forcibly remembers’ Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Mirabeau and Lafayette. Rousseau ‘used to pat her on the cheek and tell her what a pretty little dark-eyed girl she was’.
She particularly remembered the disputes between Voltaire and Rousseau, especially the (alleged) plagiarism of the latter’s ideas by the former, and the calm and amused air with which Franklin sat observing them. However, Marie also mixed in grander society. The royal family visited the waxworks, and Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth, took Marie into her own home at Versailles, to teach her how to model in wax. During her nine years as a member of the royal household, Marie also modelled the king, Queen Marie Antoinette and two of their children.
Curtius, although he privately professed himself a royalist, was moving in radical political circles, and he asked for his ‘niece’ to be allowed to return to his own household early in 1789. He took a rather bizarre part in the first act of the Revolution: on 12 July 1789, a mob had gathered in support of the duke of Orleans and the recently dismissed finance minister, Necker, and decided to put Curtius’s wax busts of these two celebrities at the head of their procession. The subsequent encounter with royal troops (during which both busts were destroyed, though some fragments of Necker were later returned) led to bloodshed, and soon afterwards to the storming of the Bastille (in which Curtius took part, though Hervé doesn’t record this).
One wonders if Dickens had read this book: the account of the comte de Lorge, whose life mask was taken by Marie after he was liberated, but who, after 30 years’ confinement, could not cope with the outside world, wanted to be re-imprisoned, and died within weeks, reminds one forcibly of Dr Manette.
Marie was taken on a tour of the ex-prison in a party with her uncle and other revolutionary notables. She slipped on a stair, but was saved from falling by Robespierre, who said something gallant about ‘so young and pretty a patriot’. ‘How little did Madame Tussaud then think, that she should, in a few years after, have his severed head on her lap, in order to take a cast from it after his execution.’
This did, in fact, become Marie’s role as the various stages of the Terror unrolled. I tend to think of the period as all over quite quickly, but of course it wasn’t. France continued as a notional monarchy until September 1792, and Louis XVI was executed only in January 1793: throughout this period there were plots and counterplots, and a great deal of anarchy, especially in Paris itself. Curtius continued to entertain the radicals – Robespierre, St Just, Danton, Desmoulins – and their foreign supporters, including Tom Paine, John Paul Jones and the German baron Anacharsis Cloots, at his salon, while news came of massacres in provincial cities such as Nantes and Avignon, foreign armies invaded France, and food supplies to the capital diminished.
Meanwhile, Marie was given the head of the princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette’s favourite, to make a cast, after she had been butchered by a mob and her head stuck on a pole to be brandished outside the queen’s prison quarters. The painter David instructed her to make a cast from the head of Marat after his assassination, and it is claimed that his famous portrait was taken from this likeness rather than from the corpse itself. Marie visited Charlotte Corday in prison, and was impressed by her dignified and calm demeanour: her head, too, had to be cast after her execution.
At one point, in Curtius’ absence, Marie, her mother and ‘aunt’ were arrested at night and carried to the prison of La Force. They were confined in a room with twenty other women and children, including Josephine de Beauharnais (later empress of France) and her daughter Hortense. Conditions were grim, the food meagre and inedible, and every time the door of the cell was opened, there was fear that it might be to take people to execution: their hair was cut short to have it ready for the guillotine. They had not been charged with any crime, but were fully aware that neither this, nor the lack of a trial, would necessarily save them. However, after a few weeks they were abruptly released again.
Curtius died in September 1794 (Marie seems to have claimed that he had been poisoned, but no evidence or motive was produced). He left her his entire estate, including the waxworks, and just over a year later she married François Tussaud. Three children were born (a daughter, who died at six months, and two sons), though none of this is mentioned by Hervé.
She continued to live in Paris, and to create waxworks – she was called to model Napoleon as First Consul, at Josephine’s request – but at the Peace of Amiens in 1802, she seized the opportunity to visit England with her collection. (The dreaded Fouché, the minister of police, was reluctant to sign her passport, on the ground that artists were not allowed to leave the country, but eventually relented.) She took her boys with her, but emphatically not her husband, to whom, and to France, she never returned.
Hervé’s narrative ends with Madame Tussaud having experienced all the joys and blessings which a foreigner might expect in a country where ‘the stability of the government has ever been such as too lull all fears of revolution, … where genius, from whatever clime is fostered, and where the exile receives the same protection as the native’. This is a pity, as she led a very interesting life in Britain, as a celebrated émigrée and entrepreneur. She made her own wax portrait at the age of 81, and it is still on display in her London museum, which, though it is not longer owned by her family and is frequently mocked for its un-lifelike images of modern celebrities, continues to receive thousands of visitors and is very much entrenched in the London tourist circuit.
Her self-portrait shows a rather grim and determined lady, in contrast to the sweet young thing on the frontispiece of the book. But it must have taken a great deal of grimness and determination to have survived an era when grappling with recently detached heads was the main source of her livelihood.