Go back to article: The Panstereomachia, Madame Tussaud’s and the Heraldic Exhibition: the art and science of displaying the medieval past in nineteenth-century London

Madame Tussaud’s: lights, wax, action

A second exhibition brings us to the middle of the Victorian era to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Marie Tussaud arrived in London in 1802 and travelled around Britain exhibiting her wax figures before establishing a more permanent exhibition on Baker Street (in a building called the Baker Street Bazaar) in the 1830s. In 1884, the collection was moved nearby to its final premises on Marylebone Road. Madame Tussaud’s was a popular London attraction. Billed as a respectable, entertaining and edifying experience, it attracted a wide-ranging audience of adult and child customers and even had its own orchestra (Pilbeam, 2002, p 93; Shepherd, 1841, p 138; 1890; Sala, 1905, p 7). [10] The museum was also easily accessible, with Baker Street Station opening in 1863.[11]

Tussaud’s relied on both old and new technology to create their exhibits. Wax figures had been modelled since antiquity and were often part of funeral rites which would offer lifelike effigies of deceased relatives.[12] Wax shows were popular in the nineteenth century and catered to a variety of tastes, from the anatomical models at circuses to exhibitions of royal figures and celebrities (Pilbeam, 2002, pp 131–52). Tussaud’s distinguished itself from its competition with its well-crafted and lifelike figures, its sheer size, and its appeal to a wide range of visitors. Here visitors were encouraged to get up close to the famous, as well as the infamous (who were located in the Chamber of Horrors). The lifelike appearance of the figures, their closeness and Tussaud’s strategic use of mirrors added to the effect of blurring the distance between spectator and spectacle. The realistic nature of the figures was the subject of a cartoon by George Cruikshank in the Comic Almanack (1847) entitled ‘Last night I dreamt I slept at Madame Tussaud’s’ (Thackeray et al, 1844–1853, p 167). In a Night at the Museum moment, the cartoon depicted the figures coming to life after the last visitors had left. Here, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, Pitt the Younger, Britannia and the figure of Queen Victoria conversed and danced.

Figure 4

Black and white cartoon illustration entitled Last night I dreamt I slept at Madame Tussauds

Cartoon, ‘Last night I dreamt I slept at Madame Tussaud’s’, Comic Almanack (1847)

Tussaud’s also embraced more recent technologies like gas lighting, which had only been adopted in the early nineteenth century before it became more common in the public buildings and streets of mid-nineteenth-century London (1884).[13] Tussaud’s used gas lights extensively to illuminate figures and to create eerie light effects in the Chamber of Horrors by dimming the lights and casting shadows. While Tussaud’s use of artificial lighting impressed many visitors, American Benjamin Moran (part of the US legation later the US embassy) had a more negative picture: ‘Wretched figures of more wretched kings and queens are judiciously disposed for exhibition, and the spangles on their faded robes glitter in the gaslight, and astonish and delight the loyal crowd’ (Moran, 1853, p 217).
In Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, technology was also used to bring visitors closer to the more distant past. The exhibition’s focus on the British past, and royal figures, can be linked to its desire to market itself as an educational exhibit (Gribling, 2018, pp 421–38). In the mid-Victorian era, Tussaud’s set about major additions to its English royal figures, and advertisements highlighted the relevance of these figures for schoolchildren, aiding them in their ‘historical studies’ and enabling them to engage with royal heroes and villains that featured heavily in their history books. By the 1860s, advertisements boasted that Tussaud’s now contained every monarch from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria. Tussaud’s played into this market, encouraging children to go up to and touch the figures and thus supplementing guidebooks and exhibition texts which explained their historical importance. The Daily Telegraph noted that ‘Tussaud’s…figures were so correctly portrayed and dressed that they [were] an ideal aid for teachers’ (1883).

In the 1850s and 1860s, Tussaud’s royal figures underwent a major expansion when a number of new characters were added, including many from the Middle Ages, such as King John, Richard I, Edward III and the Black Prince. Focusing on two late-medieval figures, King John and Edward the Black Prince, we can see how the types of narratives espoused by Tussaud’s complemented and played with the narratives and royal characters presented in children’s school books and novels. A wax statue of the warrior Edward the Black Prince placed in Tussaud’s in 1862 had the prince decked in a ‘suit of gilt armour’ with his sword by his side.[14] Tussaud’s invested heavily in their models and their costumes, seeing this as integral to their character’s image.[15] An advert in Le Follet (a ladies fashionable magazine) stated that the costumes were composed by careful study of ancient manuscripts (1863). It is clear that the Black Prince’s statue was also modelled on his effigy in Canterbury Cathedral – itself a great example of medieval craftsmanship – illustrating how Victorian imaginings of characters in the age of chivalry were often indebted to medieval constructions. Guidebooks presented the prince as a heroic conqueror, in keeping with other images of Edward that circulated in histories and adventure stories.[16]

In contrast, Tussaud’s presented a more negative image of King John, putting into wax visions of the king previously circulated in popular histories for children like Mrs Markham’s History of England and Maria Callcott’s Little Arthur’s History of England (Penrose, 1823; Callcott, 1835). According to Little Arthur’s, John’s reign ‘was a very bad one for England, for John was neither so wise as his father, nor so brave as his brother. Besides he was very cruel’ (Callcott, 1835, p 140). The guidebook for children A Visit to Madame Tussaud’s noted that, ‘That fierce looking man is King John. He was a very bad man, and the worst King that England has ever had. The Barons were so angry with him that they sent to offer his throne to the Dauphin of France, and he was just coming over to take it, when John, who was staying at a convent, was poisoned by one of the monks and died’ (Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, 1890s, p 5). It appears that the model of King John was effective; the author of ‘An American Girl in London’ stating ‘I could not have believed it possible to put such a thoroughly bad temper into wax’ (1890). Tussaud’s ensured that their waxworks’ expressions, body language, and costumes all contributed to their overall vision of the character.

While Tussaud’s reinforced popular visions of Edward and John, it also circumvented these traditional narratives of history through its placement of other historical royals. In Tussaud’s, the figures were not always in chronological order and displays often highlighted certain royals over others giving them more privileged positions.[17] For example, the 1873 catalogue shows how a number of royals – including Edward III, the Black Prince, Henry V and Henry VIII and his wives – were placed in the Large Room as opposed to the Hall of Kings (Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, 1873, p v). The placement of these characters in the first room visitors would enter suggests that these figures were used to draw in visitors. Yet, it also speaks to the continued interest in the late medieval and Tudor royals in Victorian culture (Mandler 2011; Melman, 2006); Tussaud’s kept track of which figures drew the crowds, and constantly moved figures to account for changing popular tastes.

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of a waxwork model of King John from 1937

King John, Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition Coronation Catalogue, 1937

Tussaud’s royal exhibits continued to be popular into the late Victorian era, shaping perceptions of historical characters as well as contemporary characters, including Queen Victoria and her family. Indeed, Tussaud’s constantly updated their figures – both adding new ones and cleaning and touching up their other models. In his behind-the-scenes tour of the waxworks, the author of an article in the Million noted: ‘In the dressing-room the workers were engaged upon a new costume for Richard Coeur de Lion, which consisted of a white silk shirt with a red cross embroidered upon it, and a blue velvet cloak to be worn over his armour’ with a dressmaker stating ‘“their clothes have to be renewed every seven years – they get so rotten”’ (1893). Richard’s costume was integral to Tussaud’s projection of the king as a romantic crusader and brave Christian warrior (Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, 1890s, p 5). However, as the nineteenth century progressed, this vision competed with more negative depictions of Richard I in literature and histories as a ruler who abandoned his country and embarked on a costly war (Gillingham, 2004; Gribling, 2017, pp 68–9).

By the late nineteenth century, Tussaud’s was also investing heavily in their tableaux, which included key scenes from the British past. They used the new technology of electric lighting to enhance their exhibitions and showcase particular stories. Tussaud’s replacement of gas with electric lighting in November 1890 heralded a new era in museum display.[19] In an article published 11 June 1897, the periodical Electricity highlighted how Tussaud’s used the new technology to transform the way visitors experienced three medieval-themed tableaux: ‘Alfred the Great in the Neat-herd’s cottage’, ‘Harold losing the Battle of Hastings’ and ‘King John signing the Magna Charta’. The story of a distracted Alfred who burnt the cakes and was chastised by a peasant woman was well-known in Victorian England (Parker, 2007, pp 103–107). Here, Tussaud used electricity to make a fire that ‘glows with a ruddy glare’. The author of Electricity noted rather humorously that the King Alfred exhibit showcased the ‘art of electric cooking, for he bakes, or rather burns, the time-honoured cakes’ (1897, p 281). The Sporting Review argued that the new lighting also made the figures appear more lifelike than they had under the gaslight (1890a). Those looking at the body of Harold after he had been struck by an arrow could now see clearly ‘the deathly pallor of the dead king’s face’ being in ‘striking contrast to those of the seekers’ adding to the gravity of the scene (1897, p 281). The ‘Magna Charta’ tableau used 56 lamps so that John’s signing appeared to be ‘transacted under the blaze of the mid-day sun…and so that no tell-tale shadows shall reveal their presence’ (1897, p 281). Thus, the introduction of electricity provoked changes in design as well as interpretation.

Figure 6

Black and white building plan illustration showing the lighting arrangement at a gallery of Madame Tussauds

Snapshot from an article on the installation of electricity at Madame Tussaud’s, Lower and Upper Gallery Lights, Electrical Engineer, 21 November 1890

In their tableaux, Tussaud’s used technology to shape historical narratives about the Anglo-Saxon and late medieval pasts and royals. In the ‘Harold’ tableau, staging and backdrops were used to draw viewers into the solemn scene: Harold’s body has just been discovered by his love Edith and two monks who will eventually take it to be buried in Waltham Abbey. The tableau depicts the last Anglo-Saxon king as a tragic figure with the guidebook entry citing his tomb inscription Hic ‘jacet’ Haroldus infelix – ‘here lies Harold the unfortunate’ (Sala, 1905, p 80). In the Alfred tableau, Tussaud’s used electricity to make Alfred’s fire a focal point with the Neatherd’s wife, the Neatherd and Alfred all looking at the cakes. Tussaud’s guidebook highlighted both the humour of the king being reprimanded and the reason for his distraction – his conflict with the Danes. The presence of these two tableaux in the late nineteenth century illustrates how the museum played into the wider Victorian Anglo-Saxon revival. Alfred was promoted as an exemplar of the Anglo-Saxon race and was the subject of numerous histories, plays and even a major celebration in Winchester in 1901 (Parker, 2007). For the Victorians, Harold’s death at the hands of William the Conqueror’s Norman army marked a turning point in English history. While Harold’s tableau highlights the king’s tragic death, Simmons suggests this scene could act as a reminder of England’s eventual triumph as the Victorians saw themselves as ‘reversing the conquest’ by reclaiming their Anglo-Saxon heritage (Simmons, 1990, p 151).

Figure 7

Postcard reproduction of a painting of Alfred the Great visiting a neatherds cottage

Postcard, Madame Tussaud and Sons, ‘Alfred the Great in the Neatherd’s Cottage’, c.1905

In contrast, ‘King John signing the Magna Charta’ clarifies perceptions of the late medieval past. Tussaud’s used lighting to create the sunlit outdoor scene in Runnymede meadow and to draw attention to the cowed monarch.[20] The 1905 guidebook highlighted how this tableau was meant to be viewed: ‘The expression on King John’s face, of mingled rage and humiliation, is best seen by the visitor when standing well to the left of the group. It will then be perceived that he is apparently speaking to Fitz-Walter, whom we may suppose he is upbraiding for depriving him the royal authority and power he had so disgracefully abused’ (Sala, 1905, pp 87–88). While Tussaud’s used the tableau to promote the view of John as a villain, its presence was also part of a wider Victorian and early Edwardian celebration of Magna Carta (in art, literature, histories and performances); the 1215 charter was projected as a marker of constitutional progress whereby the liberties of the people were secured (Breay and Harrison, 2015). By the late nineteenth century, bolstered by their additions of new historical kings and queens and historically-themed tableaux, Tussaud’s continued their drive to promote themselves as an essential educational experience for all ages (Gribling, 2018), straddling the roles of educator and entertainer for the masses. Tussaud’s approach to history can be contrasted with the Heraldic Exhibition of 1894, which moved from mass entertainment to new and competing ideas about historical authenticity and authority, and a new interest in the Middle Ages as heritage.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181011/003