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Celebrating Joseph Grimaldi

June 2, 2012
by the gentle author

Zaz the clown spins a disc for Joseph Grimaldi

Last week saw the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of the world’s most famous clown, Joseph Grimaldi, and a small group of devotees with painted faces gathered – as they do each year on the anniversary – at the former graveyard of St James’ Pentonville Rd to celebrate his memory, in the place where the bones of the great man lie interred.

The church was deconsecrated long ago and the churchyard cleared, reconstituted now as Joseph Grimaldi Park with his tombstone given pride of place in a location twenty feet from where he is actually buried. Nearby, the traffic roars up and down the Pentonville Rd with a ferocity unknown in Grimaldi’s day, yet the remains of thirteen hundred souls still lie here peacefully and, even though Grimaldi was decapitated before burial at his own request out of a morbid fear of being buried alive, his spirit becomes manifest each year when the clowns arrive to pay tribute.

On an occluded summer’s day, the sun broke through as the ‘Joeys’ came stumbling in one by one, wearing their big boots, enacting their crazy poetry of gurning, and bringing delight with old gags and dumb tricks. Resplendent in a garish suit of Buchanan tartan, Mattie, the curator of the clown museum and local resident who has lived thirty-five years years in Clerkenwell, gave a plain speech of remembrance before laying flowers for Grimaldi. At a distance, Puzzle the silent clown, wiped tears from his eyes as he stood under an umbrella in the sunlight while water pumped up through the handle cascaded down over the shade, making a suitable gesture to honour the man who developed the notion of the modern clown that is universally recognised today.

“It’s been low-key for donkeys’ years and we thought it would be nice to pay a bit more attention to it,” explained  Bluebottle, rubbing his hands in delighted satisfaction at the turnout. A clown of twenty years experience, he was speaking to me as official secretary of Clowns International, the world’s largest clown organisation. By contrast, Fiasco the clown has only been doing it for six months, eagerly confiding that her sole ambition is “to bring people happiness and to entertain handicapped children.” Meanwhile, Zaz the clown who has been clowning since he was eleven and is now thirty-three, revealed that he had performed for Madonna’s children and been flown to India just to entertain at a party. And Jolly Jack confessed that he began clowning at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and never looked back. They were a quorum of fools, and we delighted at  their high jinks and idiocy.

At the entrance to Joseph Grimaldi Park, two metal coffin lids set into the ground invite you to dance upon them, triggering the sound of bells. They propose the triumph of clowning over death and offer a metaphor for the human condition – that we are all but dancing upon our graves. Clowning and mortality are inextricable in this way. We need clowns to humble us by reminding us of our essential foolishness, to encourage us to seek joy where it flies, and to confront us with our flawed humanity, lest we should make the mistake of taking ourselves too seriously.

Fans young and old gather to celebrate Joey the clown.

Mattie the clown.

Fiasco the clown with ‘Daddy.’

Bluebottle the clown.

Jolly Jack the clown.

Puzzle the clown.

Professor Geoffrey Felix’s Punch & Judy Show – Mr Punch is 350 years old this year.

Musical coffins commemorating Joseph Grimaldi and Charles Dibdin invite you to dance upon them.

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A sombre moment of remembrance at Grimaldi’s grave.

Joseph Grimaldi (18th December 1778 – 31st May 1837)

You may also like to read about

Joseph Grimaldi, Clown

At the 65th Annual Grimaldi Service

At the Punch & Judy Festival

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jane permalink
    June 2, 2012

    I especially enjoyed this post — thank you!

  2. Ros permalink
    June 2, 2012

    What a lovely post!

  3. Chris F permalink
    June 2, 2012

    ‘twenty feet from where he is actually buried’! Why? Have they built over his real grave? Is there a marker over the real spot?

  4. Shawdiane permalink
    February 3, 2015

    Thank you. Very interesting. How sad that such a funny man was so afraid of being buried
    alive that he requested to be decapitated & then the grave yard where he rests was deconsecrated. I too would like to know why his tomb stone is twenty yards from where
    Grimaldi is buried. Can any one enlighten us ?

  5. April 25, 2015

    I came across your article and thought you might be interested in taking a look at a forthcoming novel, because two clowns – Joseph Grimaldi and his tragic drunken son “JS” – appear as important characters, and a drawing based upon the life of the son is of immense importance in the novel.
    Charles Dickens based a story in The Pickwick Papers on the life of Grimaldi’s son — and my husband not only portrays the character who inspired the story, he also shows how the story led to the suicide of the book’s illustrator, Robert Seymour.
    The novel is called Death and Mr Pickwick and has been written by my husband Stephen and if you would like to know a bit more about Robert Seymour who was Charles Dickens’s original illustrator for the Pickwick Papers we have set up a website

    The novel will be published in May by Random House (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (in the USA).

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