Famed around the world for her London-based wax museum (and the chain of waxworks which now bears her name), French-born Madame Tussaud is a towering figure of the early 19th century.

Born Anna Maria Grosholtz in Strasbourg on 1st December, 1761, Marie Tussaud’s association with waxworks came early when, her father Joseph having apparently died from wounds sustained in the Seven Years War just before her birth, she accompanied her mother Anna Maria Walder to Berne in Switzerland where her mother took up a position as a housekeeper for a physician and anatomical wax sculptor and portraitist Dr Philippe Curtius.

Madame-TussaudIn 1765, Dr Curtius moved to pre-Revolutionary Paris where he was soon to open a couple of establishments – at the Palais-Royal and the Boulevard du Temple (later consolidated at the latter site) – displaying his works in wax. Marie, whom Dr Curtius brought to Paris with her mother in 1768, started working with him on wax models and in 1777, at the age of just 16, produced her first wax figure, that of philosopher Voltaire. Other early works of Madame Tussaud’s depicted Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin.

The story goes that such was the renown of Tussaud and her “uncle” Dr Curtius, that their social circle came to include members of the Royal Family. Tussaud is widely believed to have been an art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister Elizabeth and may have even taken up residence at Versailles.

Tussaud recounts that she was arrested during the French Revolution – the story goes that she was imprisoned and eventually released thanks to the intervention of family friend and revolutionary Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois but whether this is true remains a matter of debate.

Tussaud claims she was then forced make death masks of those who ended their life on the scaffold including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat and Robespierre. When Curtius died in 1794, she inherited his wax works and the following year married an engineer Francois Tussaud with whom she had two sons, Joseph and Francois (later known as Francis).

In 1802, Madame Tussaud accepted an invitation to go to London to exhibit her work at the Lyceum Theatre but thanks to the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, she and her four-year-old son Joseph were unable to return to France. Separated from her husband, she subsequently spent the next three decades travelling with her exhibition – which included relics from the Revolution and, like those of Curtius, was being constantly updated to reflect current affairs – around Britain and Ireland.

Her son Francois joined her in 1822 and Tussaud continued travelling until 1835 when she first established a permanent exhibition in Baker Street, London. Known as the Baker Street Bazaar, it apparently contained more than 400 wax figures. In 1846, Punch Magazine is credited with having invented the term ‘Chamber of Horrors’ for the room where the relics of the French Revolution were displayed.

Tussaud wrote her memoirs in 1838, and, in 1842, completed a wax model of herself. She died in her sleep on 16th April, 1850, in London. Her son Francois became chief artist for the exhibition after her retirement – he was succeeded by his son and then grandson. The exhibition moved to its current site in Marylebone Road in 1884.

Now owned by the Merlin Entertainments Group, Madame Tussauds has branches in cities in some 10 countries as well as its London base. Many of her original models still exist and are on display in the London museum along with the exhibition’s oldest attraction – known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, it dates from 1863 – a breathing likeness of Louis XV’s sleeping mistress Madame du Barry.

For more on Madame Tussauds today, see www.madametussauds.com.

For more on the life of Madame Tussaud, see Kate Berridge’s book, Waxing Mythical: The Life and Legend of Madame Tussaud.

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President Barack Obama has been in London for the past two days, so Exploring London decided to take a break from our series on King James’ I’s London and instead, in honor of the president’s visit, take a look at where you’ll find some other US presidents in London.

First up, it’s President George Washington. A life-sized statue of the first US president stands outside the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar Square. It’s a replica of an eighteenth century marble statue by Jean Antoine Houdon which stands in the State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia. A gift of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1924.

Civil War President Abraham Lincoln stands looking toward Parliament Square and the Houses of Parliament (pictured). The statue dates from 1920 – it was originally proposed to put a statue of President Lincoln in Parliament Square to mark the 1915 centenary of the last time the US and Britain were at war but the plans were put on ice until several years later. The statue, a gift of the US government, is a replica of the Chicago Lincoln Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. (There is also a bust of Lincoln inside the Royal Exchange building).

Next in the chronology is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose statue can be found on the north side of Grosvenor Gardens (overlooked by the vast and soon-to-be replaced US embassy). This bronze was unveiled by the president’s wife, Eleanor, on the third anniversary of FDR’s death- 12th April, 1948. The statue depicts the president standing – apparently at Mrs Roosevelt’s insistence – instead of seated in a wheelchair.

Across the gardens stands another wartime president, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A bronze by sculptor Robert Dean, this life-size statue was the gift of the US city of Kansas in 1989 and was unveiled by British PM Margaret Thatcher and US Ambassador Charles Price. It stands only a short distance from Eisenhower’s wartime HQ. (Grosvenor Square has also been home to then future US President John Adams who lived at number nine as the first US Ambassador to the Court of St James between 1786-97).

A bronze bust of the 35th president, President John F. Kennedy, can be found on the corner of Park Crescent and Marylebone Road. Unveiled by his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, in 1965, it’s a copy of a bust located in the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Among those mooted for the future is one of President Ronald Reagan (also in Grosvenor Square), planning permission for which was granted by Westminster City Council in 2009.