There has always been something slightly eerie about wax works. Something a little uncanny about these facsimiles of life. Even the apparently innocuous models of celebrities and soap stars have a certain air of the bizarre and the disturbing about them. Perhaps it is a sense that those sightless eyes might just blink when you turn away; or that when the lights go down the effigies might just yawn, and shake out their stiff limbs and begin to wander about the museum. It is something that writers and film makers have long exploited – wax works lend themselves so readily to horror and to human fears, evoking sex, death, torture and obsession. But this is nothing new….
The Face of death
The Romans – inveterate snobs – made a public display in their homes of wax effigies of long departed ancestors. Other cultures also commemorated the dead using effigies, sometimes using clay instead of wax. In short the link between wax images and death has a very long history.
In popular culture waxworks have a long been used to depict the famous dead, gruesome deformities and notorious criminals as well as to disseminate current events to a largely illiterate populous. They were a popular feature of travelling shows and have been recorded at St Bartholomew’s’ fair as early as 1647. The popular taste for celebrity, sensationalism and death also has a long pedigree.
The rise of the Anatomical Venus
In the eighteenth century waxworks took on a more respectable function, yet in doing so became even more firmly associated with sex and death. Medical schools, particularly in Italy, excelled in producing waxworks to illustrate the human body, its functions and ailments. Waxworks filled the gap in anatomy classes at a time when the supply and storage of fresh corpses could be a problem.
However, whereas male models were usually posed upright and were seldom painted, female models took on a supine and morbidly eroticised appearance – often sumptuously laid out on cushion replete with flowing hair and jewellery, and posed in attitudes of death that could be mistaken for sexual ecstasy.
The eighteenth century often managed to successfully combine the ideals of scientific and medical enquiry with prurient titillation and sensationalism (Dr Graham and his Temple of Health being a prime example of this) and these beautiful yet macabre female waxworks appealed to this appetite. The Italian made anatomical ‘Venus’ soon became the eighteenth century ‘must have’ executive toy. Not just for the medical man about town, but for the discreet private collector as well.
Even the prim and proper Madame Tussaud’s could not quite get away from the Venus tradition. In the nineteenth century the anatomical Venus had somewhat fallen out of fashion developed a low rent ‘pornographic’ image. The illustrious Madame T, once she had established herself in England, wanted to use waxworks for informative middle class family entertainment; clearly titillating images of sexy corpses would not fit the emerging ideals of Victorianism that Madame T so effectively marketed.
Perhaps this is why the otherwise unsettling ‘Sleeping Beauty’ waxwork which is one of the oldest waxworks on display at Madame Tussaud’s, and is purported to be either the lovely Madame Amaranthe or Louis XV saucy mistress Madame du Barry, has a clockwork heart ticking away under her satin bodice. A gentle reminder to the viewer that despite her disturbing vulnerability and air of deathliness, Sleeping Beauty is not part of the sordid old eighteenth century with its predilection for necrophiliac voyeurism!
Nevertheless perhaps a waxwork with a beating heart creates its own particular brand of horror….
Three Dimensional Newspapers
In the time before photographs, and before the world became an interconnected web of constant communication, wax works held their own as a popular medium for spreading current affairs – and gossip.
In late eighteenth century France Philippe Curtius ran a successful ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which included waxworks and other oddities. The show ran under the auspices of the Prince de Conti initially at his Palace in Paris. The show included celebrities including the royal family at dinner – viewers could hob-nob with royalty and note the latest court fashions whilst in the Caverne des Grand Voleurs they could experience the thrill of coming face to face with notorious criminals such as the eighteenth century poisoner Antoine-Francois Desrues (perhaps this was a precursor to the chamber of horrors made famous by Madame Tussaud, where curious onlookers could examine the faces and forms of heinous criminals and their victims without risking their own personal safety!)
Pamela Pilbeam, in her biography of Madame Tussaud’s, points out that one of the benefits of running a waxwork show in France was that it was not subject to the same censorship or regulation that the Opera and theatres were subject too.
Once the revolution came, this was to change. Although the waxworks became a useful tool in providing the population of Paris with updates on the political situation (and Curtius managed to shed his Royalist sympathies remarkably swiftly). However, the speed of the changes and the escalating violence of the revolution soon made this occupation a hazardous one. Madame Tussaud, who worked with and trained under Curtius, recollected (in her slightly embellished memoirs) modelling the freshly guillotined heads of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and later the revolutionaries themselves…one particularly grisly incident was the modelling of the rotting corpse of Marat in his bath (he was murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday), thus unintentionally blending horror with political reportage!
Severed heads of prominent revolutionaries including Robespierre himself.
The enduring appeal of waxworks
There is really simply too much to write about waxworks in one single post – the notorious chamber of horrors and noted female wax modellers deserve posts of their own.
For now, it is enough to say that although from the twentieth century onwards the medical and educational need for wax models has been superseded by plastination and other forms of technology; and we have a plethora of multi-media images of royals, celebrities and politicians to chose from; there is still a thrill in coming face to face with a waxwork. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Henry VIII or enjoying the frisson of controlled fear in a chamber of horrors – and wondering, just wondering, what will happen if you blink…
Pilbeam, Pamela, Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks, Hambledon and London, 2003