Before the famous exhibition in London, Madame Tussaud had a thriving business in Dublin …
Her Early Life
Marie Tussaud was born in Strasbourg, France, on 1st December 1761. Her father, a German soldier named Joseph Grosholtz, died two months before she was born as a result of horrific injuries he sustained in the Seven Years War. When she was six, her mother, Annie-Marie Walder, took her to Bern. Annie-Marie took up a position as housekeeper to a local doctor, Philippe Curtius who was skilled in wax modeling. He used the models to illustrate anatomy but later for portraiture.
He moved to Paris in 1765 and established a Cabinet de Portraits En Cire. A year later, Marie and her mother joined him. Curtius’s work was acclaimed and he soon opened a second exhibition which was a precursor to Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors on Boulevard du Temple. Marie was eager to learn the art and Curtius was delighted when she showed a talent for the technique. In 1777, she created her first wax figure, that of Voltaire.
For the nine years prior to the French Revolution in 1789, Marie served as art tutor at Versailles to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth. As a result, during the Reign of Terror, she was seen as a royal sympathizer. She was arrested and imprisoned in LaForce prison with aristocrats and other people associated with the regime. Here she shared a cell with the future Empress Josephine (Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife). Her head was even shaved in preparation for her execution but she was released thanks to Collot d’Herbois’, a French actor and revolutionary and friend of Curtius. Marie was then employed to make death masks of the revolution’s famous victims, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre. Marie, in her memoir, claimed she searched through the bodies of the dead to collect the most famous heads she could find.
When Curtius died in 1794, he left his collection of wax works to Marie. A year later, she married a civil engineer by the name of François Tussaud. They had two sons, Joseph and François, and a daughter who died after birth. The marriage was not a success and Marie never saw him again after 1802, when she took the boys and her waxworks across the English Channel and began years of successful touring.
Marie Settles in Dublin
In February 1804, after a successful tour in Scotland, Marie and her son Joseph set sail for Dublin and took up lodgings at 16 Clarendon Street. She went on to establish an exhibition at Shakespeare’s Gallery in Exchequer Street and enjoyed some success. In a letter to her family in Paris she wrote:
“… everything is going well. When I am in Dublin the takings can reach £100 sterling a month. People come in crowds every day from 6 o’clock until 10 o’clock.”
She remained in Dublin until the spring of 1805, when she began touring again, visiting all the major towns in Ireland. In July 1808 she returned to Scotland. Marie made plans to return to Dublin in 1821 to coincide with a visit to Ireland by King George IV. But her ship, The Earl of Moira, was wrecked and although she and her companions were rescued, many of her precious wax exhibits were lost. Sadly, she never returned to Ireland.
Baker Street, London
In 1835, after 33 years of touring Britain and Ireland, she established her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street, on the upper floor of the Baker Street Bazaar. The exhibition continued to grow as Marie added models of English murderers and body snatchers to her collection. Punch Magazine christened it a “Chamber of Horrors”
Having survived the French Revolution and several ship wrecks, Marie died in her sleep in London on the 16th April 1850, at the ripe old age of 88. She was buried in the Catholic chapel in the Fulham Road, where many French exiles had gone before her but her coffin was subsequently moved to St Mary’s in Cadogan Street, where a plaque commemorates her last resting place.
In 1884, her grandsons moved the exhibition to its current site on Marylebone Road. It was largely destroyed by fire, and rebuilt in the 1920s, and today it features models of sports personalities, musicians, film stars, royalty and statesmen from around the world.