History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Stars of the stage in my studio—Miss Ellen Terry has a cup of tea-Sir Squire and Lady Bancroft—Sir Henry Irving and the cabby—We comply with a strange request.
PEOPLE sometimes ask me how my portraits are taken, and how my subjects sit to me. It is very much with my work as it is with the work of a sculptor. There is practically only this distinction in principle—the sculptor reproduces his work in marble or bronze, and I execute mine in wax, both working from a first impression in clay. Added to this there is, of course, a difference in the matter of treatment.
Sitters have their own peculiar characteristics, and often require humouring.
I once wrote to Miss Ellen Terry, asking her to do me the honour of sitting to me; and she replied that she would be pleased- to do so, making no appointment.
A few days afterwards the vivacious actress found her way to my studio door without anyone to guide her, and how she got there has always puzzled me. I was engrossed in some urgent work, when a rap came and Miss Terry sailed in, all smiles and animation.
She did not introduce herself. There was no need. I knew her instantly, as I supposed she imagined I should. It was a very hot day, and she said, "I am positively dying for a cup of tea."
She told me she was just clearing off all her visiting arrears before sailing, and added: "You see, Mr. Tussaud, I have not forgotten you."
The cup that cheers was very soon brewed, and Miss Terry saw that I noticed a gauntlet on her right hand as she raised the cup to her lips.
"I met with a slight accident on the stage," she said.
I wish I could recall some of her delightful chat, and I regret that I did not keep a diary instead of trusting entirely to memory. However, I may derive some consolation from the conclusion, arrived at by an old and experienced literary friend, that it is seldom what has been forgotten would have been worth writing about had it been remembered.
When I had finished modelling, and not till then, Miss Terry apologised for being in a hurry, and as she took' her departure I found myself wondering by what secret art or gift she could conjure up so much mirth and sprightliness when the thermometer was registering ninety in the shade.
After Miss Terry had gone my eye happened to catch the chair on which she had been sitting, and I discovered that the back legs were within an eighth of an inch of the edge of the high dais.
I trembled to think of what might have happened to the actress if the chair had fallen to the floor while she occupied it. I suppose the reason for its position having changed from that in which it was originally placed was that the actress, who could hardly be described as a reposeful "sitter," had shifted it in her restlessness.
The carpenter had omitted to fix the fillet which should have been placed to preclude any risk of the chair falling from its elevated position.
Only a few months ago Lady Bancroft, speaking at a matinée in aid of King George's Pension Fund for Actors, made an amusing allusion to Madame Tussaud's.
She had just been listening to the dialogue between Peg Woffington, played by Irene Vanburgh, and Triplet, and she said :
"When it was arranged that my husband should come from his retirement to play the part of Triplet, we were very much exercised where to find his old costume.
"Then, all at once, we remembered the last time we saw that costume was at Madame Tussaud's.
"I said, `Of course you have been melted down by this time.'
"He said, `What do you think they have made of me? Perhaps Marshal Foch, perhaps President Poincaré, perhaps President Wilson. I only hope my figure has not been melted down to something in the Chamber of Horrors.' "
None laughed more heartily than the King at Lady Bancroft's story.
It was in the spring of 1889, that the Bancrofts gave me several sittings. The merry laughter of the actress made the time pass quickly and my work a real joy.
When the models of Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft were added to the Exhibition, in the characters of Peg Woffington and Triplet in Masks and Faces, reference to th s was made in our Easter announcement.
Si Squire Bancroft tells the following story in this connection:
A young man from the country visited the Exhibition on Easter Monday of that year, and went straight to the Chamber of Horrors. He said he wanted to see the `'Squire who murdered a triplet'!”
They tell me that Henry Irving came to see his portrait a year after I had modelled him, but, unfortunately, I missed the great actor that day.
Mention of Irving takes my mind back rather a long way. to the time when I had the pleasure of introducing his model and that of Miss Ellen Terry to the Exhibition. They were on the eve of making their first journey across the Atlantic, and they cheerfully consented to enable me to let the public see them in their absence.
Irving was an ideal sitter, as might be expected of a great actor. He adapted himself to my requirements in every detail, and gave me to feel that he took great pleasure in my work. I very soon became aware of Irving's kindliness of heart and his sympathy with an artist at his labours.
Conversation turned upon the question of insuring Madame Tussaud's against fire, and Irving remarked that money would be a very poor compensation for the los of our irreplaceable collection, especially having regard to the relics of Napoleon and the heads of the French revolutionaries.
The actor told me of an alarming experience he had while acting at the Lyceum Theatre.
The play was nearing its most dramatic climax when he noticed that fire had broken out in the "sky borders," and the fear of a panic in the audience rose in his mind lest any member of it should chance to see the flames.
He admitted that it was an ordeal that required all his courage to face without betraying signs of anxiety, but he succeeded in continuing to play his part without a single person in the front of the house suspecting that there was any cause for alarm.
Fortunately, the stage carpenters and attendants were able to extinguish the fast-spreading flames without any interruption. The curtain was eventually rung down on an applauding audience, quite oblivious of the danger that had threatened.
Irving lighted his pipe on his departure, which set me thinking that he would have enjoyed a smoke during the sitting, but was too courteous and considerate to suggest one. He told me he hoped, on his return from America, to visit the Exhibition and see his portrait. He came and saw it, but I did not see him.
Sir Henry used to employ the same cabman to take him to the theatre each evening. He asked him once if he had ever seen him act, and, the man replying in the negative, Irving gave him five shillings with which the cabman could procure seats for himself and his wife in the pit.
On the following day the actor asked the driver what he thought of him on the stage.
"To tell you the truth," said the ingenuous jehu, "we didn't go."
"Not go," said Irving, "when I gave you the money for the seats !"
Well, sir," said the man, "it was this way. It was my missus's birthday, and I asked her which she would prefer to do—go to see you act, or go to Madame Tussaud's, and she said she preferred the waxworks."
Irving often related this story against himself with the greatest gusto, enjoying it quite as much as his hearers did.
On many occasions Madame Tussaud's has been of service to the stage.
When the late W. G. Wills, the author of Jane Shoe, a prolific playwright in his day, was at the height of his popularity, my father was approached by Mr. Coleman, manager of the Queen's Theatre, Long Acre, to produce for him a figure of Charles I.
The reason of this request was, surely, one of the strangest that ever entered the brain of even the most enterprising of theatrical managers.
George Rignold was playing at that theatre a drama, written by Wills, entitled Cromwell. This play* was the successor of another by the same dramatist, namely, Charles I, in which Irving played the part of the King, and confirmed the reputation he had made in Th; Bells.
A bargain had been struck that if Charles I succeeded, Wills should write Cromwell for Mr. Coleman. Charles I proved a great success at the Lyceum, but Cromwell was a comparative failure at the Queen's.
I come now to the reason of Mr. Coleman's request for a waxen model of the King.
He said he wanted it to repose in the coffin on the stage to stimulate the imagination of the actor, Mr. Rignold, when rendering the long oration delivered by Cromwell in the presence of the dead monarch.
The model was furnished with every detail, even to the clothing in which the body was attired. I was afterwards told that only the manager, the actor, and my father were aware of the realistic plan that had been devised to accentuate an actor's eloquence.