‘I AM grim all day – but I make you laugh at night!’
Joseph Grimaldi, the king of the clowns, was born in London in 1778. He performed at Sadler’s Wells then the Drury Lane Theatre before becoming a fixture at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1806.
His style had its origins in the Italian commedia dell’arte of the 16th century but the popular comic Harlequinades of the early 1800s saw him evolve the basics of modern clowning. His skills made the clown more popular than the supposed leading character of the Harlequin.
In 1810 he was earning the incredible sum of three pounds a week. But by 1823 he was forced to retire, at the age of 45, the years of tumbling having taken their toll. His memoirs were edited by Charles Dickens, who said: ‘The clown left the stage with Grimaldi, and though often heard of, has never since been seen’. All clowns are now known as Joeys because of him.
He was buried in 1837 in St James, Pentonville Road N1, where an annual service was held to commemorate those clowns who had died in the previous year. You can still see his grave there in a small park but the church itself has been demolished.
The annual service is now held in Holy Trinity, Beechwood Road, Dalston E8, on the first Sunday in February. Go along and you’ll find a congregation full of clowns – in all their finery (the 2010 service is pictured above). it is, as you might imagine, a very jolly affair.
Afterwards, you might visit the nearby Clowns Gallery, a museum of clowns, in the All Saints Centre, Haggerston Road E8. It is normally open just once a month – on the first Friday (from 12 to 5pm) (special arrangements for group visits at other times).
The Gallery holds the Egg Register, eggs painted in each clown’s unique make-up, it being an unwritten rule that no clown ever copies the make-up of another.
Tube: Liverpool Street, then bus 149 or 242