The famous wax museum, Madame Tussauds, is one of London’s premier tourist attractions. More than 200 million people have visited since it opened in 1835 and today, it attracts around 2.5 million tourists annually.
Located on Marylebone Road, Marylebone, the waxworks has survived for more than 180 years, despite being badly damaged by a fire in 1925 and then by a bomb during World War II.
There are a multitude of wax models in different settings within Madame Tussauds, featuring celebrities of all kinds – from sporting heroes such as Muhammad Ali, to Hollywood legends including Marilyn Monroe and politicians like Bill Clinton.
Who is Madame Tussaud?
The museum has a fascinating history. Dating back to when the founder was born in France, she learned the art of wax modelling from a physician. Born Marie Grosholtz, in Strasbourg, on 1st December 1761, she had an unusual upbringing.
Her father, Joseph Grosholtz, died during the Seven Years’ War, two months before Marie was born, so her mother, Anne-Marie, brought the child up alone. Anne-Marie then gained employment as a housekeeper for Dr Philippe Curtius, in Bern, Switzerland, when Marie was six years old.
He was a skilled wax modeller, as well as a leading physician, initially using his wax models to illustrate anatomy but later turning his talents to creating 3D wax portraits of clients. Marie learned the art of wax modelling herself and became an apprentice to Curtius, showing talent from the onset.
How did Madame Tussauds begin?
Curtius opened two wax museums himself, after moving to Paris to launch his Cabinet de Portraits En Cire – a wax portraiture firm. Marie and her mother moved to Paris with him.
In 1776, he opened an exhibition at the Palais Royal, followed by a second exhibition, the Caverne des Grands Voleurs (the Cavern of the Grand Thieves) at the Boulevard du Temple. The latter was an early Chamber of Horrors, and the grizzly section of Tussauds today.
Both became popular visitor attractions and Marie became skilled at wax modelling. She began to work for Curtius as an artist when she was 14 and created her first wax model of the French writer and philosopher Voltaire two years later.
She was soon earning a living making portraits of the rich and famous, including the royal family, until the French Revolution of 1789.
She was believed to be a royal sympathiser and was arrested. She was due to be executed by guillotine, but Collot d’Herbois, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, knew Curtius and saved Marie’s life. However, she was forced to make wax death masks for the revolution’s famous victims, such as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Curtius died in 1794 and bequeathed his collection of wax works to Marie, who married civil engineer François Tussaud in 1795. They went on to have two sons and a daughter.
Tussauds in Britain
In 1802, Marie went to London to exhibit waxworks at the Lyceum Theatre and then travelled across Great Britain with her collection for 20 years, with her son, François, joining her in the family business. She retired from touring in 1835, after 33 years on the road.
She set up her first permanent waxworks exhibition on Baker Street in London (called The Baker Street Bazaar) the same year. Admission was sixpence per person and she also exhibited gory artefacts from the French Revolution in the Chamber of Horrors.
Exhibits included a guillotine which she claimed had executed Marie Antoinette! It was a huge success and people seemed to enjoy the macabre exhibits. In 1884, Marie moved her exhibition to its present location, Madame Tussauds, in Marylebone Road.
How are wax figures made?
Creating just one waxwork model is a painstaking business and takes a specialist staff of around 30 sculptors and technicians many weeks to complete. The hair alone can take more than a month, as around 10,000 individual hairs are inserted into the scalp, rather like a full-head hair transplant.
When a new subject for a waxwork is chosen by a panel of top executives, they have their first sitting, which takes four hours. More than 200 photos are taken from every angle and all their body measurements are recorded. Hair samples are taken and false eyes are matched up to the subject’s own eyes. An impression is made of their teeth and hands.
The first model of the head is created from clay and then work begins on the waxwork, using translucent wax and layers of oil paint to make it look as much like skin as possible – including the addition of veins and freckles. It takes six months and 2,400 lbs of wax to make each waxwork, at an average cost of around £35,000 per model.
Once the waxworks are on display, an army of technicians touch up their faces and hair every day to ensure they are in tip-top condition before the public arrive.
Who are the latest exhibits?
Among the new arrivals at Madame Tussauds are award-winning Indian film actress Deepika Padukone, who has starred in adventure films such as XXX: Return of Xander Cage. It was revealed in July that she had recently attended her sitting for the creation of her wax model.
In June, British singing superstar Ed Sheeran’s likeness was revealed, wearing a blue checked shirt and standing holding his guitar, ready for a gig. On 9th May, the future Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, joined the model of her husband-to-be, Prince Harry, prior to their big day on 19th May.
Some timeless exhibits are remodelled throughout their life to note their changing appearance. There have been 23 waxworks made of Queen Elizabeth II. The most recent was unveiled in 2012 for her diamond jubilee – it had taken four months to complete, at a cost of more than £150,000. Her elegant gown is decorated with more than 53,000 Swarovski crystals.
Madame Tussauds has had its fair share of famous visitors, the most recent being Made in Chelsea television star and winner of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here 2017, Georgia Toffolo. As the queen of the jungle, she was invited to open Tussauds’ latest attraction in March, the royal balcony, complete with figures of the Queen, Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and other royals.
British Olympic running legend Mo Farah met his wax figure in August 2017 after his final race in the IAAF Athletics World Championships in London, doing his famous “Mobot” pose.
A wonderful day out for all the family, Madame Tussauds is open all year round, except Christmas Day. If you’re planning a visit and you’re looking for affordable minibus hire, H&H Van Hire has got you covered! Please contact us for further details of our comfortable nine, 14 and 17-seater minibuses.