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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Waxworks

The waxworks is a colonial industry; the more murderers, the more it thrives. The manufacturer always keeps a lot of bodies on hand, and immediately upon a malefactor being hanged pops a head upon one of them, advertises it, and in rush the public... In this museum may also be seen other enlivening little incidents in the murdering line, and also a cheerful lot of casts (taken after death) of celebrities whose decease has not been attributable to ill health.

Melbourne Punch June 1865

Waxworks were among the various types of entertainment venue to emerge in Australian cities in the mid-19th century. In Melbourne, wax modeller Ellen Williams opened a waxworks at the theatre end of Bourke Street in 1858, operating in tandem with the 'Phrenological Museum' run by her companion, Philemon Sohier, whom she married in 1859. She later opened a business in Sydney and toured elements of her collection to Tasmania during the 1860s.

Taking Madame Tussaud’s as a model, Madame Sohier's Waxworks Exhibition featured the usual, illustrious subjects – monarchs, military heroes and the like – as well as a 'Criminals Room' containing lurid effigies of infamous offenders, their waxen likenesses often being based on death masks.

Although these displays overtly appealed to predilections for scandal or titillation, waxworks proprietors often justified their inclusion by claiming that they provided a means of instruction and moral improvement. This blurred distinction between entertainment and information was exemplified by Sohier's successor, Max Kreitmayer, a medical modeller by training, who acquired the Melbourne business in 1870. 

3 portraits

1 Ned Kelly death mask, date unknown an unknown artist after Maximilian Kreitmayer. 2 Death mask of George Melville, courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Old Melbourne Gaol Collection.

Related information

Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask

Sideshow Alley

Infamy, the macabre & the portrait

Previous exhibition, 2015

Death masks, post-mortem drawings and other spooky and disquieting portraits... Come and see how portraits of infamous Australians were used in the 19th century.

The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

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The National Portrait Gallery building at night
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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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