The collection

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display

Week 14. Wax self-portrait of Madame Tussaud. Madame Tussaud's. Marylebone Road, London NW1.

Madame Tussaud (born Marie Grosholtz, in Strasbourg in 1761) learned her unique skills at the hands of a doctor with a talent for sculpting, Philippe Curtius. He became her mentor and guardian and she worked wih him at his wax exhibition in Paris.

She had an extraordinary and turbulent career, which took off after her artistic talents found favour with the French royal family. The French Revolution brought this to a halt, however, and she was imprisoned for her aristocratic connections. But her skills with wax portraiture saved her life; she was forced to make death masks of executed nobles and at night had to collect baskets of decapitated heads to take back to her studio.

This self-portrait was her last work, modelled when she was 81, eight years before her death. She was a tiny woman (4ft 5in) and her expression could perhaps most kindly be described as "determined".

The figure was first sculpted in modelling clay, with her body measurements used to create an exact replica. Calipers were used to take about 100 measurements of her head alone, recording the distance between, say, the tip of her nose to the centre of her chin. The figure would have taken about 10 weeks to model, with small wooden spatulas used to shape every detail.

Once the clay sculpture was ready, the head and body would have been separated and covered with liquid plaster of Paris to create moulds.

The process for the head was incredibly complex; it entailed fitting pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. The body was far simpler; it comprised two pieces of solid plaster instead of wax. Today, a light fibreglass is used, which makes moving the figures around much easier.

Mme Tussaud's glass eyeballs were hand-painted, pushed into the sockets from inside the head and held in place with melted wax. Real human hair was then inserted into the wax scalp - one strand at a time. As Mme Tussaud had shoulder-length hair, this would have taken several weeks. The skin colour was achieved with thin layers of oil paint.

The whole portrait would have taken about six months to complete. The same methods are still used today, making the task of choosing which personality to create one of the hardest: will the subject still be famous six months down the line?

Diane Moon is PR manager at Madame Tussaud's. Tel: 0171 935 6861

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