Thursday, 16 February 2017

Ben Franklin in wax

The wax effigy of Benjamin Franklin was an attraction at Curtius's Salon de Cire, a stalwart of the early Tussaud exhibitions in England and is now a crowd-puller at Tussauds in New York and Washington.  Franklin, an inveterate self-publicist, would probably not be displeased.

Franklin first visited France in 1766 and 1769. He returned in 1776 to negotiate the treaty of alliance between France and the United States and remained as Minister to France until he returned with Houdon in 1785. Houdon's bust of Franklin in the Metropolitan Museum is dated 1778.

There is almost no reliable documentation concerning the original  waxwork. According to the Tussaud Memoirs, Franklin was a regular guest at Curtius's home: the little vignette of his appearance is well-studied:

Dr. Franklin Madame Tussaud describes as being an agreeable companion. His personal appearance was that of the most perfect simplicity, and his manners truly amiable. He was a stout man, about five feet ten inches in height ; his eyes were grey and complexion light ; his hair was very long and grey ; he always dressed in black, and his clothes were made in the old-fashioned style ; he had, however, particularly fine legs, and was very proud of his dancing.(p.16)

Later we learn that the young Marie was given the task of taking casts from the heads of "Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Mirabeau, and the principal men of the day", all of whom (even Rousseau!) "patiently submitted themselves to the hands of the fair artist". (p.19)

Benjamin Franklin,  "Modelled from life by Curtius for his exhibition in Paris"
The Romance of Madame Tussaud specifies that the model of Franklin which was brought to England dated from 1783 and was "modelled from life by Curtius for his exhibition in Paris". Franklin is said to have commissioned several portraits of himself from Curtius, together with "models of many other notable characters of the day". Several miniatures went directly into his possession.  It was "well known" that he had works by Curtius in his lodgings in Paris, very probably too in his home in Market Street Philadelphia, where in 1787 Manasseh Cutler reported seeing on on his mantlepiece  "a prodigious number of medals, busts and casts in wax or plaster of paris, which are the effigies of the most noted characters in Europe"  (Romance, p.22-23; quoting the journal of the Reverend Dr. Manasseh Cutler for 13th July 1787,  Works of Franklin, vol.1 (1844), p.52)

Ben Franklin did indeed have an interest in waxworks. But, unfortunately for the Tussaud myth, he knew and corresponded familiarly with a different  wax sculptress. This was the American widow Patience Lovell Wright, who in 1779 made a sejourn in France. Mrs Wright had already made quite a name for herself in England, counting among her commissions likeness of the Royal family and a funeral effigy of William Pitt.  She was also widely rumoured to have smuggled intelligence back to the  American Patriots concealed inside wax heads.  In 1781 Elkanah Watson, who acted as a courier to Franklin, commissioned his likeness from Mrs Wright:

I employed Mrs. W. to make the head of Franklin, which was often the source of much amusement to me.  After it was completed, both being invited to dine with Franklin, I conveyed her to Passy in my carriage, she bearing the head upon her lap. No sooner in presence of the Doctor, than she had placed one head by the side of the other. “There!” she exclaimed, “are twin brothers.” The likeness was truly admirable, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Wright, to give it more effect, Franklin sent me a suit of silk clothes he wore in 1778. Many years afterwards, the head was broken in Albany, and the clothes I presented to the Historical Society of Massachusetts.

The suit still exists. In 2012 it was acquired from the MHS by the Smithsonian.  In pictures it appears brown, though we are assured it was originally burgundy or plum in colour.

Mrs Wright subsequently wrote to Franklin asking him whether she should set up in business in Paris; he replied in the negative:

As to the exercise of your art here, I am in doubt whether it would answer your expectations.  Here are two or three who profess it, and make a show of their works on the Boulevards;  but it is not the taste for persons of fashion to sit to these artists for their portraits; and both house rent and living at Paris are very expensive.
Letter from Passy, dated  4th May 1779

The dismissive reference to two or three waxwork artists "on the Boulevards" certainly does not suggest close personal acquaintance with either Curtius or his talented niece.

Although the full size wax model no longer survives, there is a wax relief of Franklin ascribed to Patience Wright in the Metropolitan Museum.


Angela Serratore, "The Madame Tussaud of the American colonies was a Founding Fathers stalker",, 23.12.2013.

"Smithsonian buys Benjamin Franklin's silk suit", The History Blog, post of 29.08.2012.

Mike Rendell, "Another look at a visit to the waxworks:  America's first sculptor and a spy..." Georgian Gentlemen [blog], post of 14.03.2014

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