In the late 1780s, Londoners had a rare opportunity to see the great writer and philosopher Voltaire with their own eyes for the cost of just one shilling. The fact that he had died eight years earlier was of no concern, for this Voltaire was sculpted entirely from wax.
Voltaire had been rendered in wax by one Mr Sylvester – an ‘eminent Artist’ who had recently trained at the Royal Academy in Paris – and housed in his Wax Work Cabinet. The Cabinet had first been on display in Paris, before moving to ‘Mr. Ansell’s Large Room, Spring Gardens, London’ – a street at the southeast extreme of St James’s, crossing the eastern end of The Mall, a fashionable quarter of the city inhabited by civil servants and politicians. The Cabinet was described as being ‘an assembly of the most distinguished potentates and characters in Europe’ including royalty from across Europe, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madame du Barre, the goddess Venus, and the Countess de la Motte accompanied by a fortune teller.
In January 1786, notices were placed in local newspapers declaring that Mr Sylvester’s Wax Work Cabinet was being moved ‘to that more centrical situation, the Lyceum, in the Strand’, a grander venue just a ten-minute walk from Spring Gardens. The Lyceum had been built in 1772 as an exhibition room for the use of the Royal Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, having been designed by the architect James Paine to rival the ‘grand salons’ of Paris. It quickly became clear, however, that the Lyceum was a financial disaster as it could not compete with the Royal Academy. The building was subsequently sold in 1777, becoming an exchange, exhibition space, debating room, and gallery. It was while the Lyceum was in this state that Mr Sylvester moved his collection of wax works into the Grand Saloon in 1786, but it was not to last long; the Lyceum was put up for auction in March 1790 and though it did not sell, the space was instead repurposed, coming to house a Phantasmagoria that featured a menagerie of exotic animals, Mr Diller’s Philosophical Fireworks, and an Irish giant.
Advertisements for Mr Sylvester’s exhibition of the Wax Work Cabinet at the Lyceum proclaimed that the spectacle was designed ‘for the Inspection of the CURIOUS’ and it was here that Voltaire’s waxwork was prominently displayed alongside a host of other wax curios including ‘an exact Representation of The Seraglio’, the rulers of Germany, Russia, France, Spain, Prussia, Naples, and the Netherlands, and a rendition of the goddess Venus sleeping, though one newspaper reported that the most popular figures were those of the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, the Countess de la Motte, le Montrofin, and the Countess du Barre. Indeed, Mr. Sylvester was noted for his specialism in the life-sized reproduction of royal figures, making his inclusion of Voltaire in the midst of such royalty notable, and these noble figures were much admired by spectators. The actor and theatrical manager Henry Irving, for instance, visited the exhibition in November 1790 just before its closure and remarked upon the visit in the following way:
‘The enterprising Mr. Sylvester, always anxious to gratify the Curiosity of a generous Public, has added to his grand Exhibition a Model of the Head of the late Governor of the Bastille. He received the exact likeness from the same Gentleman who sent him the likeness of Baron Trenck, who happened to be on the spot when the Governor was executed, and got permission of the mob to take it off in plaster, which Mask he sent to Mr. Sylvester. N.B. Mr. Sylvester returns his most grateful Thanks to the Nobility and Gentry, and Public in general, for the very great encouragement he has received; and as he means to close his Exhibition very soon, admits Servants and Children at Half Price, viz., Sixpence only. That much admired Figure of the Sleeping Venus at Full Length.’ (Brereton, 1803, p.18)
From this account, it is clear that the exhibition was ever-evolving, adding new figures to an illustrious cast of which Voltaire was a steady constant.
The closure of the exhibition at the Lyceum did not signal the end of the Wax Work Cabinet, however. A newspaper advertisement from 1794 noted that the exhibition had moved to ‘No. 341, near Catherine-street, in the Strand’ and was now being run by Mrs Sylvester, the former proprietor’s wife. The Cabinet appears to have been well-travelled between its departure from the Lyceum and its arrival on the Strand, with the advertisement noting that the exhibition – including Voltaire – had been ‘displayed with so much éclat at Dublin, Edinburgh, and most of the principal Towns in England, and approved of by the most curious Connoisseurs, and chiefly by the most eminent Artists in most parts of Europe’. And, as was ever the case, the Cabinet continued to evolve and grow in size, now totalling fifty-two figures and including renderings of recent events such as the British naval victory over the French on 1st June 1794. The advertisement reported that the additions and alterations made by Mrs Sylvester had been well received, being ‘deservedly esteemed by an impartial Public, to be the first productions of the kind’.
This was not the first time that Voltaire had been rendered in wax and it certainly would not be the last. He had been the subject of the very first waxwork crafted by the now famous Marie Tussaud in 1777 when she was just 16 years old, for instance. Tussaud had made the cast of Voltaire’s face just two months before his death, and the resulting waxwork was initially displayed in the Salon de Cire sat at a desk surrounded by books. Voltaire himself had insisted on sending his own clothes to dress the waxwork and onlookers often remarked that his model was significantly scruffier than others on display (Pillbeam, 2006, p.29). Tussaud later brought both the Voltaire mould and waxwork to England, where they remain today, and one catalogue for her London exhibition remarked that ‘the most admirable specimen of her talent in the present collection is the portrait model of the most famous wit Voltaire’ (Pillbeam, 2006, p.173). Clearly her wax rendering of Voltaire was a big hit.
Tussaud’s uncle, Philippe Curtius, also created a wax figure of Voltaire but for a much more sombre purpose, this time to be used in his funeral procession. Here, the model of Voltaire lay on a sarcophagus placed in a funeral chariot that was drawn by twelve white horses, offering mourners one last chance to glimpse the writer before his burial. Unfortunately, heavy rain caused the vermillion robes in which the waxwork had been clothed to run, turning the effigy a somewhat grotesque shade of purple. So well-received was this figure, however, despite its ghoulish hue, that Curtius instigated a boom for wax effigies in funeral processions, with tourists attending funeral processions specifically to view the waxworks on display, as if they were carnivalesque floats. The advertisements for the Cabinet certainly were not wrong when they described the audience for waxworks as curious.
Waxworks of Voltaire were also made in miniature. In c.1790, for example, Francesco Orso created a set of miniature waxworks that included Voltaire, the only example of his waxwork to survive today. Orso was not so concerned with accuracy here as he was allegory and genre, situating his miniature Voltaire in a pastoral scene besides the other spiritual fathers of the French Revolution – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin – and two children. This peaceful scene exudes an air of new beginnings and the blossoming of Spring after a long, hard winter. Other miniature waxworks of Voltaire were more gruesome, such as the 55 x 48.5 cm wax relief of Voltaire on his death bed produced by Samuel Percy in England in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century, modelled on an earlier example by Philippe Curtius. Here, Voltaire is not delightfully posed in an allegorical pastoral scene but instead lies awkwardly across a green canopied bed as a maid enters to the left, raising her hands in horror at the sight. This was not a waxwork designed to glorify a great man as much as it was a scene intended to invoke an emotive response, with the artist depicting Voltaire as a frail, pained, and pitiful figure lacking any dignity in his final moments. Even more disturbing is a waxwork produced by Kaspar Berhard Hardy in c.1780, again of Voltaire on his deathbed. This time, the wider scene of the bedroom has been stripped away and the waxwork centres on Voltaire’s face and upper body, reclining ungracefully, his expression pained, as he takes his last breaths. Again, we see no glory in this 24 x 7 x 23.5 cm cased waxwork figure, no triumphal or defiant display in the face of his own mortality, but rather a pained and frightened Voltaire fearfully awaiting his death. There is an intimacy here, and a humbling of a great literary figure, stripping back the layers of celebrity to reveal a mere mortal, not so dissimilar to the viewer.
But why should waxworks of Voltaire have created such a draw for visitors? What was it about lifelike waxworks that proved to be such an attraction? And did visitors attach any emotion to their viewing of such figures? In the advertisement for Sylvester’s exhibition, Voltaire is described as ‘that justly admired French Genius, who died in Paris in the Year 1778, aged 85, and has been in his Life-time an intimate Friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’. He was not only an admired individual but also an influential one. Certainly, this celebrity could have been enough of a draw in and of itself, offering the public the chance to see great figures for themselves, with their own eyes.
There is, however, as Michelle E. Bloom has noted, something captivating about waxworks simply for their ability to blur boundaries (Bloom, 2003, pp.xi-xiii). No longer is the spectator sure of the dividing line between human being and inanimate form, life and death, celebrity and normality. The viewer knows that the Voltaire they are seeing is a mere artistic representation, that the real Voltaire has been dead for many years, and yet there is something so lifelike about the waxwork that it is as if the veil between life and death has been lifted, just for a moment. Indeed, waxworks had their origins in funeral effigies rather than art, being carried atop royal coffins across medieval and early modern Europe in order to provide onlookers with one last chance to catch a glimpse of someone of status. These effigies would often be displayed by the tomb of the deceased royal or elsewhere in the church after the funeral, becoming a popular attraction that visitors would sometimes have to pay to view. For many who had never seen a royal figure before, such displays of effigies in churches provided the rare opportunity to see the majesty of royalty for themselves, to get up close to a member of the royal family in a way that they never could have done in life, momentarily dismantling social divides.
Waxworks thus seem to be intimately intertwined with possibility. For many, it is unlikely that they will ever meet a celebrity. Yet a waxwork provides the opportunity to at least stand shoulder to shoulder with their likeness. At the same time, waxworks break down the barrier between celebrities and normal people. These were not attempts, necessarily, to glorify; waxworks did not smooth wrinkles, remove scars, or reverse time as lofty marble busts may have done. Instead, they portrayed the subject in intimate and realistic detail. When viewing a Voltaire waxwork, therefore, the spectator was not viewing a great marble effigy designed to instil a sense of grandeur – such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Seated Voltaire – or a trinket sized piece of memorabilia – like the statuettes featured in a recent study by Antoine Lilti – but rather a humbling glimpse of the real man behind the vast writings, warts and all. Such realistic representations were not always well received. Antonio Canova and commentator on the visual arts James Ralph both thought that waxworks were undignified, ‘expressing neither figure like statuary nor colour like painting’ (Craske, 1997, p.192-94).
But perhaps the purpose of the waxwork was never meant to be art. Perhaps instead the place of the waxwork was firmly entrenched in the juxtaposing notions of celebrity and humility. The ability to look a great celebrity in the eyes, to stand in their presence, and yet see them exactly as they were (a human being just like the viewer) was perhaps equally as emotive, albeit in a different way, as viewing a painting produced by a great master of a beautiful and idealised figure.
Waxworks create a world of make-believe that somehow feels very real. The viewer knows that the slightly iridescent flesh and glassy eyes they are staring at have been shaped by human hands and yet there is the unnerving sense that when one turns ones back on a waxwork it may just come alive. To view figures like Voltaire in this way, to gaze upon them more intently than one ever could in polite society, and to note the most intimate details of their faces, blurs the boundary between normality and celebrity, life and death, mortality and immortality. It offers a unique and humbling chance to see notable figures as the human beings that they are or were and, as the advertisement for the Wax Work Cabinet proclaimed, was undeniably an experience for the curious.
– Zoe Screti, Astra Foundation Research Fellow in Manuscript Studies at the Voltaire Foundation