I’m a sucker for wax museums.
I mean where else can you get close to and have a picture taken with Lady Gaga, Brad and Angelina, or Will and Kate?
Wax museums – at least the better ones that routinely update their collection – have been a barometer of who’s hot and who’s not. In Pre-Revolutionary France, the waxworks of Philippe Curtius (uncle to the famed Madame Tussaud) featured a tableaux of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at a sumptuous banquet, ‘tout comme à Versailles’. Not long afterwards, the only wax portraits made of the royal couple were their death masks after they were guillotined.
More often than death, it is public opinion that has the final say of ‘who’s in and who’s out’ (appropriately, the name of a board game Madame Tussaud’s gift shop sells where you decide which wax figures you want to keep or dump from the museum’s collection). Five, two, or maybe even just one year from now, will Rob and Kristin, Justin, and J-Lo still be available for photo-ops, or will they go the way of poor Boy George – melted down and recycled into tomorrow’s next big star?
Sitters in wax have come and gone, but a staple at Madame Tussaud’s are the royals. The Queen, for one, has never left the collection - in her various incarnations as a child atop her pony, as the newly crowned Elizabeth II, and as a time-honored matriarch celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. In the past, Madame Tussaud’s had even paid tribute to each and every member of the Queen’s dynastic line; from her late father King George VI down to William the Conqueror. But again, popular taste (and no doubt practical considerations of space) has reduced their number. Gone are several of the Queen’s medieval ancestors, including many of her Stuart forbears.
The Tudors have fared well over time. Although Edward VI, Mary I, and Lady Jane Grey have now been banished from view, Henry VII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots remain popular, and do Henry VIII and his six wives.
Elizabeth I (at Madame Tussaud’s, London)
Mary Queen of Scots (at Madame Tussaud’s, London)
Henry VII (at Madame Tussaud’s, London)
Henry and his queens remain one of Madame Tussaud’s most popular attractions. Like the portraits of Elizabeth II, the grouping has gone through changes over the years. The earlier sets, admittedly, were wanting. As seen in old photographs, likenesses of the six wives were rather generic (it was difficult to distinguish one Katherine, or one Anne, from the other), and their costumes betrayed historical inaccuracies here and there. Furthermore, the ladies were almost always unimaginatively clustered around Henry VIII like department store mannequins.
Henry VIII and his six wives, from a 1950’s guidebook (at Madame Tussaud’s, London)
Henry VIII and his six wives, from the 1970’s (at Madame Tussaud’s, London)
In the early 1980’s, the portraits of Henry and his queens were entirely revamped. Their facial features were carefully reconstructed, and their clothes were meticulously recreated. Also, more naturalistic poses were adopted. Hence, we now see Katherine of Aragon sewing, Anne Boleyn playing the lute, and Anne of Cleves twiddling a flower in her hand.
Henry VIII and his six wives (an alternative set at Madame Tussaud’s, Hong Kong)
The Henry VIII and his six wives group at Madame Tussaud’s remains the most successful of this theme; superior to similar sets at other wax museums. For this reason, in 2000, the renowned Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto included the Tussaud version in his Portraits series. Henry and his queens (along with a selection of other celebrities from Madame Tussaud’s – from both the past and the present) were individually photographed and presented to the viewer as if they were living subjects. The pictures were subsequently exhibited at The Guggenheim Museum to much positive reception.