History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Literary sitters—George R. Sims's impromptu—His ordeal in the Chamber of Horrors—George Augustus Sala's masterpiece.
MR. G. R. SIMS was a cheery, entertaining sitter; not, perhaps, what most artists would consider a helpful one. His active mind busied itself with every object of interest around him. He would know all about them, and tell each off with some droll quip or whimsical jest.
I have spent many a bright hour with "Dagonet"—yes, even including those spent with him in the Chamber Of Horrors.
I once chanced to have a book of his (the Dagonet Ballads) in my hand when he came into my studio, and asked him to sign his name in it. Without a moments hesitation he wrote :
I'm a model man. You're a modeller.
G. R. SIMS.
Soon after we had decided to add Mr. Sims's figure to the Exhibition, Mrs. G. A. Sala happened to meet him, and questioned him as to the sensations he experienced in picturing himself as a waxen celebrity.
"I feel very frightened indeed," he promptly replied, "and more than that, exceedingly sorry that I ever promised to become a waxwork, for I have been told since that if the public grow weary of your presence, or the Tussauds get offended with you, they melt you down, and build up a more popular fellow out of your dripping. Nasty idea, very!"
Mrs. Sala said it certainly was a very nasty idea; but if there were any truth in the melting-down story, G. R. could enjoy the satisfaction of thinking that he might have arisen in his waxen grandeur from the "dripping" of someone less popular than himself.
Mr. Sims said that so long as the public only stuck pins into him, or stamped on his toes, he did not mind; but he should feel it very much if they were to bang him about the head with an umbrella, or take him by the collar and shake him.
It must have been in the early winter of the year 1891, while I was modelling him, that Mr. Sims had the following interesting and somewhat unpleasant experience, which he himself describes. He says:
"I have been penetrating the secrets of Tussaud's lately, and had a specially quiet half-hour alone with the murderers in the Chamber of Horrors, just to see what it was like.
"The idea came to me one night when I had been sitting late to Mr. John Tussaud. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be all alone with those awful people with only one dim jet of gas lighting up their fearful features.
"After the door was shut I walked about and whistled, and stared defiantly at William Corder and James Bloomfield Rush, and even went so far as to address M. Eyraud in French. But wandering about in the semi-darkness I stumbled and fell, and when I got up and looked around me I found I was in Mrs. Pearcey's kitchen.
"Then I made one wild rush at the closed door, and hammered at it until the kindly watchman came and let me out. I never want to be shut up alone at night in the Chamber of Horrors again as long as I live."
Humorously describing my studios at the time, Mr. Sims says :
"At Madame Tussaud's I am at present in rather a curious condition. There is a good deal of the Thames mystery about me. It is not given to every man to see his legs in one room, his hands hanging up in an-other, and his head on a shelf, looking about anxiously for his body.
"I can't say I quite like looking at my head on a shelf. It suggests decapitation and Madame de Lamballe's head on a pike as Louis caught sight of it when the mob held it up at the window.
"But I am assured that I shall be put together next week, and that my limbs will once more be found together as Nature intended they should be.
"I don't know what that Scotch sixpenny which refers to me in highly uncomplimentary terms about seven times in every column will say, but the exigencies of space at the Marylebone Museum have compelled the management to put me next to Lord Tennyson. I am sure that this will be such a shock to my modesty that I shall go hot and melt the very first day that the weather is at all warm.
"Fortunately, I shall have a brother journalist to support me and keep me in countenance, for while Lord Tennyson is seated writing poetry in his study, Mr. George Augustus Sala in his study sits next door to him, dashing off one of his brilliant leaders for the Daily Telegraph. It is in a study built up on the other side of Lord Tennyson that the visitor to Madame Tussaud's will at an early date find himself face to face with 'Dagonet.' "
There George R. Sims has been seated ever since. Twenty-eight years ago! Time has wrought many changes, but during the whole of that period I have uninterruptedly enjoyed Mr. Sims's valued friendship.
George Augustus Sala sat to me about the same time, and a very good sitter he was. The celebrated journalist lived in a flat at Victoria Street, Westminster, where I called on him, and I remember his saying to me with pride :
"I'm taking up modern Greek in my sixtieth year. What do you think I am reading'? I am reading an excellent account in Greek of the Stanfield Hall murder."
During the autumn of 1889 I had seen a good deal of Mr. Sala, for we were at that time discussing the de-tails for the rewriting of our Exhibition Catalogue.
He had always taken a great interest in Madame Tussaud's, and, like many other literary men, had found it useful as a place of reference on matters of portraiture and costume. He entered upon the scheme for producing a better and larger Catalogue with great enthusiasm, but I soon discovered that the work was hardly likely to receive that equable treatment necessary for a book of the kind.
There were certain subjects his mind positively ran riot on, while others scarcely aroused the slightest interest.
Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots, stirred his imagination most of all, and to the ill-fated Queen of Louis XVI he reverted so often that it seemed the book was likely to be over-weighted with matter dealing with her sad career, to the exclusion of so much else of vital importance to our handbook.
Whenever he stood in front of the decapitated head of Marie Antoinette he always contemplated it in silence—and invariably passed from it without making any remark, as if it were a subject too sad for ordinary comment.
"I have done the Marie Antoinette biography," greeted me long before the work had been definitely agreed upon, and six or seven pages of essay were pressed into my hands as an accomplished undertaking that positively left no room for further consideration. This matter was printed in full in our Catalogue, and remained there until the difficulty in procuring paper during the war necessitated its temporary elimination. It is, perhaps, the best thing, from a purely literary point of view, that Sala ever wrote.