Grimaldi-memorialThe most renowned of English clowns, Joseph Grimaldi rose to the heights of fame in early 19th century London despite a private life characterised by hardships and pain.

Grimaldi was born in Clare Market, London on 18th December, 1778, the son of actor and clown Joseph Giuseppe Grimaldi (known simply as the “Signor”), and Londoner Rebecca Brooker, a dancer who was more than 50 years younger than Grimaldi when she become one of a string of mistresses.

Grimaldi-imageJoe was groomed for the stage by his father from an early age and made his debut at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in late 1780. He was soon also working at Drury Lane Theatre, running between the two to make performances (at the same time, he did attend a theatrical academy in Putney known for educating the children of performers).

Joe’s father died when he was just nine-years-old and he became the family’s main breadwinner and while he was still able to work at both Sadler’s Wells and Drury Lane, his pay was cut after his father’s death meaning the family had to move out of their home in Holborn and into the slum of St Giles where they took lodgings in Great Wild Street.

In 1799, having met three years before, he married Maria Hughes, the eldest daughter of Richard Hughes, the proprietor of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The newlyweds moved to a home at 37 Penton Street in Pentonville. It was not to be a long-lasting marriage – Maria died during childbirth on 18th October, 1800.

Further hardship was to come soon after when, while performing at Drury Lane Theatre, he accidentally shot himself in his foot and was forced to bed to recover. But there was a silver lining – his mother employed a dancer, Mary Bristow, to look after him during his rehabilitation and they formed a bond which led to them being married on 24th December, 1801.

After recovering from his injury, meanwhile, he had resumed his hectic schedule at London theatres as well as country venues and it was during this period that he redesigned the way in which he painted his face – adopting a white face design still used by many clowns today – and created the iconic clown which he named simply ‘Joey’.

In 1802, his only child was born – Joseph Samuel, known simply as ‘JS’ – and from the age of 18 months, he was introduced to the theatre, making his own acting debut at Sadler’s Wells in 1814.

In 1806, Joe played what is arguably his most famous roles – as both Bugle and the Clown in Thomas Dibdin’s Harlequin and Mother Goose, which opened at the Covent Garden Theatre on 29th December, 1806, and ran for the next two years.

Financial need saw him continue to take on roles in London and elsewhere but finally, in 1823, ill health – the consequence of his many years of physically abusing his body for his act – forced him into retirement. In 1828, two farewell benefit performances were held in which he had a limited role, his last was at Drury Lane on 27th June.

The last years of his life were marked with tragedy – relations which his son were strained (and they spent years estranged) before JS died on 11th December, 1832, at just the age of 30 while his wife died in 1834.

Grimaldi spent the last years of his life living alone in Southampton Street, Islington, before he was found dead in his bed by his housekeeper on 1st June, 1837. He was buried in St James’s churchyard, Pentonville, on 5th June, 1837 – the area is now Joseph Grimaldi Park and features, as well as his grave, a coffin-shaped memorial (pictured, top) that plays musical notes when danced upon (it’s apparently possible to play his signature song, Hot Codlins when “dancing upon his grave”).

Described as being the pre-eminent entertainer of his day, Grimaldi is credited with transforming the role of the Clown in pantomime and ushering in a whole new era in the art of clowning. His legacy – still remembered by clowns everywhere – received a boost when after his death, Charles Dickens edited his memoirs in 1838.

He is remembered in an annual service held on the first Sunday in February every year in Holy Trinity Church, Hackney (the Sunday just past), an event which is attended by clowns in full get-up.

For a detailed look at the life of Grimaldi, see Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian.

Where-is-it--#76

Can you identify where in London this picture was taken? If you think you can, leave a comment below. We’ll reveal the answer early next week. Good luck!

If you’ve been living in suspense for the past couple of weeks, then you need wait no longer. This coffin-shaped object is actually an interactive musical artwork commemorating clown Joseph Grimaldi (1776-1837), credited as the father of modern clowning, and the man remembered in the annual clown service held at Holy Trinity Church in Hackney each February. The artwork (and another next to it dedicated to theatre proprietor Charles Dibdin the Younger) was created by Henry Krokatsis and is located in Joseph Grimaldi Park on Pentonville Road in Clerkenwell – the site of the churchyard of the former Pentonville Chapel. The memorial is actually located on the site of Grimaldi’s grave (the gravestone has been moved and now stands nearby) and is tuned so that his popular song Hot Codlins can be played by standing on it.

Clowns turned out en masse for the annual clown service held in honour of the ‘father of modern clowning’, Joseph Grimaldi, at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston last weekend. The London-born clown, who lived from 1778 to 1837, is became widely known for his pantomine performances and is believed to have been the first ‘white face’ clown. He has been honored at a “clown service”, held on the first Sunday in February, since the mid-1940s. It was originally held at St James’ Church, Islington – where Grimaldi was buried – but was moved after the church was demolished. His grave is preserved in a memorial garden on the site.

• Sir William Ramsay, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist credited with discovering the noble gases, has been commemorated with a blue plaque at his former home in Notting Hill. The Glasgow-born Ramsay moved to London in 1887 when appointed chair of chemistry at University College London and it was while living at 12 Arundel Gardens, Notting Hill, that he discovered the five noble gases. Ramsay lived at the property until 1902. He died in 1916. English Heritage unveiled  the plaque on Wednesday.