History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
My favourite portrait Lord Tennyson poses unconsciously before my wife—"This beats Tussaud's"—Sir Richard Burton—His widow clothes the model.
OF all the portraits of my own modelling, I think, if I may be permitted to express an opinion, I like that of Lord Tennyson as well as any. It revives pleasant memories, and I will ask my readers if I may bring my wife into this part of my story. By a coincidence, as I raised my eyes at this moment, my glance fell upon a bust of Tennyson resting on a shelf in my studio. -
About the time when I was engaged with the model of the great Victorian poet I had rented a farm cottage near Freshwater, Isle of Wight, and I remember my wife telling me that she frequently saw Tennyson in the neighbourhood.
On several occasions the poet, who lived at Farringford, near by, while taking his daily constitutional, came and leant upon the garden gate, evidently charmed with the beauty of the place. The old thatched roof and the quaint attractiveness of the cottage might well have given rise to reflections in less imaginative minds than that of a poet.
I had not the opportunity of studying Tennyson's features at that time; but my wife, coyly hidden in a favourite spot in the garden, was able to observe him closely. Being herself an artist of no, mean ability, she thus afforded me considerable help in the production of his portrait.
It seems strange that perhaps the most reclusive of men should have unwittingly come forward and posed, as it were, at the very door of the artist who was then desirous of obtaining sittings.
One day, while I was at work in the studio on Tennyson, I was visited by Father Haythornthwaite, rector of the Catholic Church at Freshwater. The priest was greatly interested, and he must have conveyed to the .poet the intelligence that I was about to place his figure in Madame Tussaud's, for very shortly afterwards I learned that Tennyson was particularly desirous that I should bear in mind that, in spite of his four-score years, he had not a grey hair in his head—a touch of nature that seemed to me particularly human.
A nice but unintentional compliment was paid to one of our tableaux about this time by the present King, when he was Duke of York. We complied with a request to furnish a representation of the scene of the death of Nelson in the cockpit of the Victory for the Royal Naval Exhibition at Chelsea in May, 189 1. This tableau was founded on the famous picture by Devis, which found a permanent home at Greenwich Hospital in 1825; and it was very well received by the visitors to the Exhibition. The compliment to which I allude was not heard by me, but it was reported in the Press at the time that the Duke of York, while looking at the tableau, exclaimed, "Why, this beats Tussaud's !"
The tableau has been in our Exhibition ever since, and is a great favourite with all. When the present Prince of Wales and his brother Albert paid us a visit, the Sailor Prince looked long and intently at the historic scene. Both boys were also a good deal moved as they gazed on the tableau showing the murder of the two little princes in the Tower of London—a representation over which many impressionable people have been unable to keep dry eyes.
A great name with the past generation was that of Sir Richard Burton, who, sixty-six years ago, in fulfilment of a lifelong dream, made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the prophet Mahomet at Mecca when it was believed that no Christian could go there. Besides being a great explorer he was a man of scholarly attainments, and his translation of the Arabian Nights bears the stamp of an intimate familiarity with the Orient.
When Sir Richard died his remarkable career be-came so much a subject of general comment in the Press that the British public awakened to the fact that a great Englishman had just passed away.
Apart from his literary achievements, the account of his exploits revealed so great a love of adventure and so much disregard for narrowing conventionalities as to leaven the story of his life with a very strong tincture of romance.
When modelling his figure I saw a great deal of his handsome and stately widow, and I am sure no woman could have taken a greater pleasure or more pains in assisting an artist with such an undertaking. Every thought, every action, she bestowed upon the work showed how deeply she cherished her husband's memory and how vividly the portrait stirred her imagination.
She clothed the model with perhaps the greatest personal treasure of his she possessed—that is to say, the actual garments her husband wore when he went on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. She tarried long over the finishing touches that should make his presentment look its best before the critical eyes of the public should scan it. Ornaments, beads, trappings, had each her full consideration, and the very weapons of defence stuck anglewise in his belt were subjected to her most careful arrangement.
Of the capacity for taking pains there was no limit in Isabel Lady Burton's nature; but the labour in producing the figure, after many trying weeks, at last came to an end; and there readily springs to my mind the pathetic picture of her bestowing upon the figure the few final touches, her fingers lingering over the pleats and folds of his robe ere she could declare herself satisfied that the task she had undertaken in helping with the model had been done at her very best.
There was one little difficulty, however, that she could not quite surmount. The costume was complete in every respect except one—the sandals he had worn on his hazardous journey to Mecca had become, owing to the wet and heat and the passage of time, mere tinder, and could not be placed upon the figure.
The following brief but interesting letter explains how this difficulty was overcome :
67, Baker Street
Portman Square, W.,
May 22nd, 1894. DEAR MR. TUSSAUD,
I sent you a pair of sandals yesterday belonging to me, but to-day I have had the promise of a pair from the Prior of the Francisans which would suit much bet-ter. I shall send them directly I receive them.
The monument at Mortlake, on the Thames, within which now repose the remains of Sir Richard and his wife, consists of a white marble mausoleum, sculptured in the form of an Arab tent, its cost having been partly defrayed by public subscription.