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Joseph Grimaldi, Clown

February 5, 2012
by the gentle author

Today – the first Sunday in February – is when the clowns gather for the annual church service in Dalston to remember Joseph Grimaldi, and I am delighted to launch this new print by Spitalfields Life Contributing Artist Paul Bommer, created to celebrate the father of British clowning.

“Joey” was born in 1778 in Clare Market, a slum in Holborn composed of Elizabethan shambles which survived the Fire of London, to Guiseppe – known as “Iron Legs” – an Italian pantomime artist and Rebecca a dancer, both performers at Drury Lane. The story is told that he was literally catapulted to fame when he fell into the pit while performing as a monkey at Sadler’s Wells, aged three. Grimaldi’s father died when he was nine but by then Joey was already making a living on the stage. With star quality, a natural gift for physical comedy, ceaseless inventiveness and an obsessive propensity for work, Grimaldi enjoyed the constant adulation of his audiences even if his personal fortunes where rarely stable. When his first wife Maria, daughter of the owner of Sadlers’ Wells Theatre, died in childbirth less than two years after their marriage, he sought consolation through immersion in his creative world. Developing the role of Clown, the country buffoon from the Commedia dell’Arte, he created the notion of comedy derived from audience participation, excelled in political impersonations and invented the pantomime dame too.

Growing up in Holborn and Clerkenwell, Joey was fascinated by the street life of the city and his most famous song “Hot Codlings,” premiered in “Mother Goose” in 1806, dramatises the character of a hawker selling baked apples.

“A little old woman,
her living she got
by selling hot codlins,
hot, hot, hot.
And this little old woman,
who codlins sold,
tho’ her codlins were hot,
she felt herself cold.
So to keep herself warm,
she thought it no sin
to fetch for herself
a quartern of …”

Joey invited his audience to complete the last line, inviting a dialogue in which the knowing spectators would subvert the performance by calling out “Gin,” cueing him to adopt a tone of soulful disappointment, declaring “Oh for shame!” in complicit response.

In the end, Joey’s success led to his self-destruction through a relentless performance schedule, often playing two theatres on the same night and enacting demanding physical stunts. By the age of forty-eight, he was unable to continue, and his departure from the stage and farewell to his adoring audience must rank as one of the most emotional in British theatre history. Held in the affections of all circus folk today, Joseph Grimaldi’s reputation remains current in the popular imagination as the inventor of the archetype of the white faced clown that is universally recognised.

In 1820, at seven years old, Charles Dickens saw Grimaldi perform in pantomime in London and, at twenty-five years old in 1838, he rewrote Grimaldi’s Memoirs from a manuscript discovered posthumously, fitting the job into the three month gap between completing Pickwick Papers and starting Nicholas Nickleby. George Cruickshank, who lived in Amwell St round the corner from Sadlers’ Wells, drew the lively pictures, captioned below with excerpts from the text by “Boz.”

Joe’s debut into the pit at Sadlers’ Wells in 1782, aged three – “He played the monkey and had to accompany the clown (his father) throughout the piece. In one of the scenes, his father used to lead him on by a chain attached to his waist, and with this chain he would swing him round and round, at arm’s length, with the utmost velocity. One evening, when this feat was in the act of performance, the chain broke, and he was hurled a considerable distance into the pit, fortunately without sustaining the slightest injury – for he was flung into the arms of an old gentleman who was sitting gazing at the stage with intense interest.”

Master Joey going to visit his godpapa. “He used to be allowed as a mark of high and special favour, to spend every alternate Sunday at the house of his mother’s father, a carcass butcher doing a prodigious business, besides which he kept the Bloomsbury slaughter-house. With this grandfather, Joey was a great favourite, and as he was very much indulged and petted when he went to see him, he used to look forward to every visit with great anxiety. After great deliberation and much consultation with the tailors, the “little clown” was attired in the following style – he wore a green coated embroidered with as many flowers as his father had put in the garden at Lambeth, he had a laced shirt, cravat and ruffles, a cocked-hat upon his head, a small watch set with diamonds – theatrical we suppose –  in his fob, and a little cane in his hand which he switched to and fro as clowns do now.”

A Startling Effect – John Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Grimaldi as the Grave Digger.

Live properties – “He dressed himself in an old livery coat with immense pockets and a huge cocked hat, both were – of course – over his clown’s costume. At his back, he carried a basket laden with carrots and turnips, stuffing a duck into each pocket, leaving their heads hanging out, and carried a pig under one arm and a goose under the other.”

Appearing in public – “During the month he had to play “Clown” at both Sadlers’ Wells and Covent Garden Theatres, not having time to change his dress and indeed no reason for doing so if he had, in consequence of his playing the same part at both houses, he was accustomed to have a coach waiting, into which he threw himself the moment he had finished at Sadler’s Wells, and was straightaway carried to Covent Garden to begin again.”

The Barber’s shop – “Grimaldi sat himself down in a chair and the girl commenced the task in very businesslike manner. Grimaldi feeling an irresistible tendency to laugh at the oddity of the operation, but smothered by the dint of great efforts while the girl was shaving his chin. At length, when she got his upper lip, and took his nose between her fingers with a piece of brown paper, he could stand it no longer, but burst into a tremendous roar of laughter, which the girl no sooner saw than she dropped the razor. Just at this moment in came the barber, who, seeing three people in convulsions of mirth, one of them with a soapy face and a gigantic mouth making the most extravagant faces, threw his hat to the ground and laughed louder than any of them.”

Grimaldi’s kindness to the Giants. – “When “Harlequin Gulliver” was in preparation they were at a loss where to put the Brobdignagians, these figures were so cumbersome and so much in the way that the men who sustained the parts were obliged to be dressed and put away in an obscure corner before the curtain was raised. Grimaldi pitied the poor fellows so much that after the first night’s performance, he thought right to ask whether they could endure so much labour for the future. “We have agreed to do it every night,” said the spokesman of the party, “if your honour will only promise to do one thing for us, and that is just to let us have a leetle noggin of whisky.” This moderate request was readily complied with, and the giants behaved themselves exceedingly well, and never got drunk.”

The last song – “In the last place, Grimaldi acted one scene, but being wholly unable to stand went through it seated on a chair. Even in this distressing condition, he retained enough of his old humour to succeed in calling down repeated shouts of merriment and laughter. ‘Ladies & Gentlemen, in putting off the clown’s garment, allow me to drop also the clown’s taciturnity, and address you in a few parting sentences. I entered in this course of life, and I leave it prematurely. Eight and forty years only have passed over my head. Like vaulting ambition, I have overleapped myself and pay the penalty in an advanced old age. If I now have any aptitude for tumbling, it is through bodily infirmity, for I am now worse on my feet than I used to be on my head. It is four years since I jumped my last jump, filched my last oyster, boiled my last sausage and set in for retirement.'”

Portrait of Joseph Grimaldi by John Cawes, 1807.

Artist Paul Bommer shivers in the February chill at Joseph Grimaldi’s grave in Pentonville.

Copies of Paul Bommer’s Joseph Grimaldi print are available from the Spitalfields Life Online Shop.

You may also like to read about

At the 65th Annual Grimaldi Service

and these other stories about Paul Bommer’s work

Paul Bommer & Christopher Smart & His Cat Jeoffry

Paul Bommer, Illustrator & Printmaker

7 Responses leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012

    Another interesting piece – thanks! And fascinating that Grimaldi was born in Clare Market – which was the site or very near the site of the original home of the King’s Company, run by Thomas Killigrew, opened in 1660 in what had been Gibbons’s Tennis Court.

  2. February 5, 2012

    Please note that, being hand-tinted in four colours, each print is unique and will vary slightly in appearance (but not much).

  3. Ree permalink
    February 5, 2012

    Marvelous article…Grimaldi’s life would make an interesting film…Loved the little story about Joey being launched into the audience…dressed as a monkey…

  4. Gary permalink
    February 5, 2012

    I can remember a clown in the Hackney Empire when I was a child in the 1930’s singing “Father bring the hammer there’s a flea on babies eye”.
    You never forget them.

  5. Mark permalink
    February 5, 2012

    Just discovered your site, think it’s daughter and spent a week in London last November, and spent a little time in the Spitalfields-Brick Lane area, your site really makes it come to life. I’ve spent the last two mornings learning about Grimaldi and Thomas Rowlandson, time well spent. Can’t wait to come back, keep up the good work.

  6. February 6, 2012

    That’s a crackin’ print Mr Bommer!
    Yes, surely a film about Grimali is long overdue? Personal preference for such a film would veer towards technicolour and Baz Lurhmann…

  7. February 11, 2012

    On THE 31ST May the clowns go to Joseph Grimaldi grave to lay a wreach the clowns are from Clowns-International because we are called joey’s after him

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