obo Article - Clowning Around

This week, our installment of #clerkenwellcuriosities aims to offer a little levity. So, let’s talk about clowns! Not just any clown, but Joseph Grimaldi, the man who became "easily the most popular English entertainer of his day" and was acclaimed as “the funniest and best-loved man in the British theatre."

He resided, for a decade, at 56 Exmouth Market where he is today commemorated by a blue plaque.

Born into a family of entertainers in London in 1778, ‘Joey’ Grimaldi began to perform at just two years old and by the age of six was considered a prominent stage performer. He had an incredibly successful career carving the image of the ‘Clown’ we recognise today.

For one of his early performances, the Clown's costume was designed by Grimaldi to be "garishly colourful ... patterned with large diamonds and circles, and fringed with tassels and ruffs," instead of the tatty servant's outfit that had been used for a century. And the white face with red diamond eyes? Grimaldi!

However, the role of ‘Clown’ is far from smooth sailing. One evening, Grimaldi was playing the part of a monkey and was led onto the stage by his father, who had attached a chain to his waist. Giuseppe swung his young son around his head "with the utmost velocity", when the chain snapped, causing young Grimaldi to land in the orchestra pit. He also shot himself in the foot! Yes, really.

After numerous injuries over the years from his energetic clowning, his health declined rapidly, and he retired in 1823. In his last years, Grimaldi lived in relative obscurity and became a depressed, impoverished alcoholic dying at home in Islington in 1837, aged 58 and was buried in Joseph Grimaldi Park in Islington.

Grimaldi is remembered today in an annual memorial service on the first Sunday in February at Holy Trinity Church in Hackney. The service, held since the 40’s, attracts hundreds of clown performers from all over the world who attend the service in full clown costume. Through them “The Clown of Clowns” lives on.