Mr. Tussaud first enters his father’s studioReverieMadame Tussaud’s uncle forsakes the medical profession for art Madame’s birth and parentageA Prince’s promise.
IT was at the age of fourteen and in the year 1872 that I first entered my father’s studio, and well I remember the bright summer morning I passed its threshold to place myself under his tuition.
It was an odd rememorative sort of place, the eeriness of which sat uneasily on the mind of, I fear, a somewhat jocose and irresponsible youth.
The surroundings somehow seemed to force upon my mind the memories of men and things I must have heard about or dreamt of, or with whom I had been in some way made familiar. Moreover, the place was so out of touch with the ordinary affairs of life, so reposeful and secluded amid the din and turmoil of the world outside.
The studio stood well in the rear of an old-world residence, known as Salisbury House, in the parish of Marylebone. Here the family had long lived. The house confronted what, in my early days, was then still designated the New Road. Upon its site there has been since erected the imposing classic palace designed to accommodate the hitherto poorly housed Corporation of the borough.
Whenever I recall this eventful day there readily springs to my mind the circumstance that I found my father busily engaged in modelling a new portrait of the Prince of Walesthe late King Edwardfor whose recovery from a very dangerous illness the nation had recently held a Day of Thanksgiving.
From this day onward I may claim to have acted as something more than a mere spectator of that long procession of models wrought by my father’s diligent hands. Each one necessitated the making of some small sketch, some characteristic study, that has helped to swell as strange a collection of memorials as ever existed of men and events of bygone days.
It is amid these surroundings that I now sit to begin the writing of these chapters; and a strangely engrossing retrospect they reveal. Five generations of my family have contributed towards them, and now, on a modelling stool by my side, there stands the promising work of a son who will, I trust, one day follow me to carry on the work.
During the quietude of those hours that succeed the labours of the day, and when the last studio hand has closed the door behind him, I take the opportunity of penning this brief history. Often in the moving shadows of the twilight or in the flickering flame of a falling ember I fancy I see life and movement in the faces that gaze down upon me, quickened, as it were, to respond to the memories their features evoke.
But for me, at least, there is little that is disquieting in their scrutiny. For the most part they are old familiars, and a long acquaintance has set us wonderfully at our ease.
As the eye passes from the semblance of one celebrity to that of another, how vividly they carry one’s thoughts back through King Edward’s reign, the long years Queen Victoria sat upon the throne, the days of William IV, the reign and regency of “The First Gentleman of Europe,” and far back into the days of good “Farmer George” !
Even though set among the strong and characteristic features of the leading men of these memorable reigns, the striking countenance of Napoleon can be discerned without hesitation, and his familiar features force me in imagination to undergo the ordeal of crossing the Channel to retrace the course this narrative takes and discover my ancestress under the domination of the First Consul, then pushing in hot haste his fortune at the point of the bayonet, and fast traversing the hazardous road leading to the throne of France.
Somehow we do not find this long and curious retrospect illumined by any very strong ray of human happiness. Even the overshadowing head and shoulders of the great Napoleon do not conceal from our vision the dismal heads of the revolutionists; indeed, if they had been hidden from our sight, could these ghoulish impressions ever be effaced from our memory’? And so, behind Bonaparte, one’s eyes sight the sinister heads of Robespierre, Fouquier-Tinville, Carrier, Hébertmerciless creatures who gambled with the lives of their fellow men for high positions, and multiplied these awful human stakes that they might hold themselves secure.
There, too, in the falling light, one perceives the faces of Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, the two most notable and pitiful victims of the Reign of Terrora reign, forsooth, in which these ill-starred sovereigns, the descendants of generations of kings, were but the poorest and saddest of subjects.
The vista is long and hazy, but it is not too dim for one to observe upon a bracket the visage of the great Voltaire, with its leering eyes and sardonic grin. His bust is vis-a-vis with the ponderous head of the idealist Rousseau, with its heavy forehead and its short, narrow chin.
And so face after face peers down upon me, carrying the mind back with unfailing steps until is reached the true source from which this dramatic story springs.
In the year 1758, so far afield as the city of Berne, a certain young Swiss, named Christopher Curtius, was earnestly employing his days as a medical practitioner.
With the object of improving himself in his profession he had taken to modelling the limbs and organs of the human body in wax. He soon extended the scope of his labours to the execution of many miniature portraits in that same plastic material, and gained the patronage of many of the leading members of the aristocracy. In this work he succeeded well, and towards his latter days in Berne he practised rather as an artist than as a family doctor.
It is as the maternal uncle of Madame Tussaud, the subject of these memoirs, that Christopher Curtius comes under our consideration.
Madame Tussaud was the child of one Joseph Grosholtz, who lost his life when serving on the Staff of General Wurmser during the Seven Years’ War, a couple of months or so before she was born. He was of purely Swiss parentage, and the family to this day prides itself on being of Burgundian Swiss stock.
Although Marie Grosholtz was not married until the year 1795, it will be well to refer to her henceforth as Madame Tussaud, under which name she is universally known.
Madame Grosholtz and her child seem to have been the only relatives possessed by Curtius, who later induced his sister to take up her residence with him, doubtless with the object of taking control of the affairs of his household.
It was when Curtius had fully established himself as an artist in Berne that an incident took place, about the year 1762, which led to important consequences.
The Prince de Conti had been losing favour at the Court of his royal cousin, Louis XV, a circumstance mainly due, we are told, to the Prince’s excessive popularity with the Army and a certain independent bearing he adopted towards the King and his favourites. The King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, did not hesitate to show her resentment at de Conti’s lack of deference.
According to all accounts, the Prince did not take his position very much to heart, for, in truth, an estrangement between the Court and the representatives of his house afforded little in the nature of a new experience. At any rate, he shook the dust of the capital off his boots, and set out on a tour through Europe.
On this journey he tarried for some days in the city of Berne, betraying a keen desire to participate in all that medieval town could afford him by way of interest and entertainment.
Among these Curtius’s studiowhich had now acquired something of the dignity of a private museum was not allowed to escape his attention. No account of his visit to this establishment has been handed down, but a few words uttered by the Prince on leaving conveyed, beyond all doubt, his genuine admiration for the doctor-artist’s skill in his new profession as a sculptor in wax.
“If you will leave Berne and come to Paris, I will undertake to find you a suitable atelier in which to carry on your work, and hold myself responsible for your receiving as many commissions as you feel disposed to executive. Come,” he urged. “You will not regret it.”
One wonders what kindred foibles, what curious traits of disposition in common, existed between this Prince and the artist that there should have been struck so readily a chord of sympathy between them. For the offer, as we shall hereafter learn, had not been lightly made, nor had its ready acceptance been inspired without betraying a ready confidence most men would have deemed it highly imprudent to concede.