History and Significance of Madame Tussauds Waxworks

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex as wax models made by the makers of Madame Tussauds

In my last blog post I discussed the properties of wax, and its inherent narrative. For the purposes of my project, I would like to invite you to see wax in the context of the Madame Tussaud museum, and the significance of its establishment and workmanship.

Nowadays, the company is established all around the world – one of their latest institutions opened recently in Delhi. However, the first Madame Tussauds’ exhibition was opened in 1835 after she toured the British Isles with her wax figurines in the early 1800s. Tussaud learned her technique of making realistic wax models through the tutoring of Philippe Curtius who at the time was making models for the medical field to aid anatomical study.

Crutious taught Tussaud the traditional way of making the sculpts from beginning to finish:

  1. Sculpt the bust in clay
  2. Make a plaster mould of the sculpt
  3. Pour the hot wax into the mould
  4. Paint the cured wax and dress figure, including wig making.
QUICK FACT! Today, the makers of Madame Tussaud workshop still use clay to sculpt their figures as it reflects the craftsmanship and pride in the history of the museum.

Madame Tussaud’s enterprise was more than just an exhibition though – her waxwork figures represented a version of the newspaper and the celebrity column, in the sense that she showed the people who was of importance at the time. In fact, in the documentary Madame Tussaud: A Legend in Wax, they describe how her waxworks at the time of the French Revolution, helped Parisians identify who was in charge – an important feature seeing as leaders kept getting executed!

In modern times, her legacy has no lesser impact. Edward Carey compares visiting Madame Tussauds’ exhibitions to a ‘museum of the human body’ and a lesson on physiognomy – as visitors we use it not to see what people achieved but to see what they looked like. We are excited about how we can stand next to a politician, measure our height against a Hollywood actress, or have a photograph taken right next to a fictional movie character brought to life. Carey calls it a fascination with the variety of people.

Not only that, it could also have a component of a fascination of connections with people, suggested by the attraction to touch the figures by visitors. Tussauds capitalised on this concept as it ‘has always enabled us to touch… royals, celebrities and criminals’ expands Patrick Barckham. He proposes that through this interaction with the waxwork model recreations of people we view as important social figures, we become engrossed in a ‘celebrity role were we [are] in control.’ These are ‘thoroughly, irreverently interactive’ exhibitions that inspire involvement purely by taking away the red tape and letting the visitor stand side by side of the models.

Visitors taking pictures with waxwork models at the Madame Tussauds museum in Hollywood.

Due to this history of waxworks brought into the UK by Madame Tussaud, and the continual significance they hold today, I wanted to follow this tradition in my work. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to make my model of Edith Kramer in wax rather than the similar, yet more modernised, silicon. There is deep tradition in waxwork models, and a proven intrinsic effect that they hold on us. We feel life when we look at a waxworks – perhaps drawn to the way the material inherently manipulates light that touches it, or relating to the narrative that has been build around these models in the Western culture by Tussauds.

I think it would be quite fitting then, to show the commemorative celebration of Edith Kramer’s life and work through a medium which builds a narrative of significance, creativity, and life.