History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
A crinoline comedy—Mr. Bruce Smith's story—An American lady's shilling—My father's meeting with Barnum—The "cherry-coloured cat"—Paganini and the tailor—George Grossmith poses.
IN the dressing of the models attention must naturally be paid to the varying styles of both sexes. For this reason visitors are able to mark the changes Dame Fashion has decreed.
The crinoline period known to our mothers was, curiously enough, anticipated in the days immediately preceding the French Revolution, as exemplified by the quaint Parisian coquette, Madame Sappe, with whom that egoistic old cynic, Voltaire, is palpably flirting in the Grand Hall, a few paces removed from the portraits of Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette.
The crinoline of Madame Sappe brings vividly to mind an amusing story related by my granduncle Joseph, who was standing by the turnstiles when a portly matron waddled towards the pay-table, wearing an exaggerated example of this spacious skirt. Her passage aroused some curiosity, and the shuffling of her feet was accompanied by an unaccountable sound of pattering which disposed my relative to keep her under observation.
As soon as she found herself among the figures and hidden from view, as she imagined, the buxom dame cautiously raised her crinoline, when, to my uncle's amazement, out stepped two little boys.
Nothing was said to the adventurous woman who had thus passed her offspring into the Exhibition free, and my uncle used to say that the _expression on her face at the success of her subterfuge was one of radiant satisfaction.
Mr. Bruce Smith, the popular artist, who has produced many scenic effects in our tableaux, tells a story perhaps against himself.
He was engaged, with several fellow artists, on a hunting scene, when an elderly lady and a friend strolled quietly past. Mr. Smith, at the moment, was standing stock-still, scanning his work; then suddenly making a motion with his brush to retouch the canvas, he was startled by an unearthly yell from the old lady :
"Good heavens ! they are alive !"
Our "Master of the Robes" fell in conversation with an American lady, who told him that she had paid for admission with a shilling given to her in the States by an English aunt with the instruction that if ever she went to London the shilling should be expressly spent on her admission to Madame Tussaud's.
She had related the same story to the money-taker at the turnstile, and he was so impressed that he laid the romantic shilling on one side. Our representative offered to give it back to the lady, but she thanked him and said :
"No, I guess I could not break faith with my aunt!
The shilling has found its appointed place in Madame Tussaud's till, after many years, and I have done as I was told."
My father's meeting with Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great showman, was an accidental one.
While lunching in a West End restaurant the brusque and humorous behaviour of one of the guests sitting near enlisted my father's amused attention. The waiters were no less amused by the breezy visitor with the American accent, who supplemented his commands with odd remarks. Having ordered a second dozen of oysters, the American said :
"I guess I could hanker arter these. Bring me an-other dozen."
Looking hard at him, my father recognised Barnum, and presently the two men were in friendly conversation; in fact, they spent the greater part of the day together, as kindred spirits are apt to do in such circumstances.
Barnum used to call himself the "Prince of Humbugs," and gave that title to his autobiography. He told my father a story about a bright idea that struck him when his show was going none too well in an American town.
He put up an announcement, "Come and see the cherry-coloured cat," and imposed an extra charge for the privilege.
There was almost a riot as Barnum showed the people a black cat. They protested, and demanded their money back; but he coolly asked them whether they had never seen a black cherry, and so appeased their wrath.
Barnum sat to me in the spring of 189o, about a year before he died, and I think I must give him the palm for being the most entertaining of all my subjects, his reminiscences extending over so long and interesting a period. I remember him telling me. that many years before he had tried to induce my grandfather to transport Madame Tussaud's Exhibition to New York, but that the negotiations fell through at the last moment.
As I modelled him he gave me some gentle hints not to be too attentive to the wrinkles on his face, from which I inferred that the old showman possibly thought he looked older than he felt, in spite of his silvery hair and four-score years.
A short-sighted tailor was once employed to repair the coat worn by Paganini, who stood with the violin under his left arm, while the bow was held aloft in his right hand.
The figure was on a tall pedestal, and the knight of the needle had to use a step-ladder. One of the attendants, ever ready for a joke, taking advantage of the tailor's infirmity, removed the figure, and, adopting a similar attitude, stood in its place.
The tailor prepared his thread, mounted the steps, and was about to begin stitching when the supposed figure brought the bow down on his victim's back. This so terrified the unfortunate man that he rolled down the ladder on to the floor, where he sat gazing up with the utmost stupefaction.
All attempts to pacify him were for a time futile, and whenever he passed the figure of Paganini after-wards he invariably sidled away from it with a scared look.
Another practical joker was the late George Gross-smith.
It is on record that he once made the Exhibition the scene of his operations. Getting into an advantageous nook, he stood stock-still in a line with other celebrities —waxen ones. People going by stopped and said:
"Ah, Grossmith; Capital likeness ! How excellent ! Dear little Grossmith, one would think he was alive !" and various remarks of the kind. Then suddenly the effigy nodded grotesquely, and slowly extended a comic Grossmithian hand. Everyone fled as though he had been shot at.
The Speaker of the House of Commons (Mr. J. W. Lowther), at a banquet given by the Institution of Civil Engineers, in Middle Temple Hall, on the 23rd of March, 1898, told of a distinguished visitor to Lon-don who mistook Madame Tussaud's for the House of Commons.
Much the same view must have been taken by a genial and sociable diplomat from the United States who, soon after his arrival in London, came to Ma-dame Tussaud's.
"And what do you think of our great Exhibition?" asked a friend.
"Well," replied the General, "it struck me as being very like an ordinary English evening party."