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.

Playwright. Actor. Theatre manager. David Garrick stands out as a towering figure of the theatrical world in the 18th century and is remembered, at least in part, for his friendship with the irrepressible lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

Born on 19th February, 1717, in Hereford to an army officer (with French Huguenot roots) as the third of five children, Garrick attended school in Lichfield, north of Birmingham, including, at the short-lived Edial Hall School where Dr Johnson himself taught Latin and Greek. It was during his youth that he first took an interest in the stage, appearing in George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

When the school closed due to lack of funds, Garrick accompanied Dr Johnson to London (they had become friends) and there he and his younger brother Peter established a wine business (Peter eventually went back to Lichfield to run part of the business from there). While the business wasn’t a great success, Garrick took to acting in amateur theatricals and eventually – according to Peter Thomson, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – made his professional debut acting incognito in a pantomime in London in March, 1741, although Garrick apparently said placed his debut in Ipswich that summer when he was acting in Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (meanwhile the first performance of one of his dramatic works – Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades – had taken place at Drury Lane the previous year).

His breakthrough role came later that year – in October – when he appeared in London on the stage of the unlicensed Goodman’s Fields Theatre in the title role of Richard III. Soon acclaimed by the likes of Alexander Pope and William Pitt as the greatest actor of his time, further roles followed at Goodman’s Fields and at the famous Drury Lane Theatre as well as in Dublin (where he started an ultimately ill-fated love affair with Irish actress Peg Woffington who returned with him to London where he continued acting at Drury Lane).

Having also performed for a season, at the rival Covent Garden Theatre, in April 1747, Garrick entered into a partnership with James Lacy for the ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre. The first performance was apparently by Garrick himself, reading Ode to Drury Lane Theatre, on dedicating a Building and erecting a Statue, to Shakespeare – a piece written by Dr Johnson.

It was two years later – on 22nd June, 1749 – that he married a German dancer Eva Marie Veigel. They lived at a house at 27 Southampton Street and Garrick’s increasing wealth led him to buy a country property in Hampton, today in south west London, in 1754 which became known as “Garrick’s Villa”. Considerably altered, the Grade I-listed property still stands there today (albeit having suffered extensive damage in a 2008 fire) along with the summerhouse he built to house his collection of Shakespearian memorabilia – known as Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, it’s open to the public over from April to October.

Meanwhile, as well as managing the theatre, Garrick continued acting and writing plays. In September, 1769, he staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon, celebrating 200 years since the playwright’s birth – even though it was five years too late and was ultimately a bit of a disaster, he took his celebration of Shakespeare back to Drury Lane and there it was a huge success.

Garrick, who moved from Southampton Street into the newly built Adelphi Terrace in 1772, remained manager of Drury Lane until his retirement in 1776 during which time it became widely acknowledged as the country’s leading theatre. He died at home on 20th January, 1779. His wife outlived him by 43 years. The couple had no children. Garrick was subsequently interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey – the first actor to receive the honour.

Garrick’s legacy was enormous – not only is he famed for bringing a new ‘realistic’ style to the profession he so loved, he set new standards in the arts of public relations and was also an instrumental figure in having Shakespeare recognised as England’s national icon. Legend goes that he was also the actor responsible for the phrase “Break a leg!” – apparently so engrossed in a performance of Richard III that he overlooked the fact he’d fractured his bone.

Garrick’s name lives on in the Garrick Theatre (still operating in Charing Cross Road) and the Garrick Club, and there’s memorial to him on his former home in Adelphi Terrace.

Perhaps not so much a sign as a pub name, the strangely monikered Doggett’s Coat and Badge in South Bank is named after a rowing race – said to be the oldest continuous sporting event in the country – in which apprentice waterman traditionally competed for a prize consisting of waterman’s coat and badge and named after Irish-born actor and theatre manager, Thomas Doggett.

The race – which is held in July and runs over a course of four miles and seven furlongs from London Bridge to Chelsea (the starting and finishing points were originally both marked by pubs called The Swan) – was first held in 1715 when it was first organised by Doggett who financed it up until his death in 1721 after which he left instructions in its will for it to be carried on by The Fishmongers’ Company (which it still is today).

While there’s a nice story that Doggett, who managed the Drury Lane Theatre and later the Haymarket Theatre and carving out a name for himself as a ‘wit’, started the race as thanks to Thames watermen for rescuing him when he fell off a watercraft while crossing the Thames, Doggett – a committed Whig – actually started the race to commemorate the ascension of King George I – the first ruler of the House of Hanover – on 1st August, 1714, following the death of Queen Anne.

This year’s race winner was Merlin Dwan (London Rowing Club) who beat four others to finish in 24 minutes, 28 seconds.

The pub, one of the Nicholson franchise, is located in a multiple storey modern building complex and sits along the course of the race in South Bank. It features a range of bars including Thomas Doggett’s Bar and the Riverside Bar as well as a dining room and other function rooms.

For more on the pub, see www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/doggettscoatandbadgesouthbanklondon/. For more on the race (which we’ll be mentioning, along with more on Thomas Doggett, in more detail in upcoming posts), see www.DoggettsRace.org.uk.

The most acclaimed tragic actress of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Sarah Siddons is best remembered for her iconic role as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

Born in 1755 into the theatrical Kemble family (her father was an actor and theatre manager and many of her 11 younger siblings, including John Philip Kemble, also went on to be actors) in Brecon, Wales, Siddons first began appearing with Kemble’s company while still at school. Still only a young teenager, she also began a romance with one of the company’s actors, William Siddons.

The liaison was discouraged by her parents (as was the idea of her acting) and in 1770 she was sent into service with a family in Warwick. She had kept up correspondence with Siddons, however, and, after her parents withdrew their opposition to the match, they were married on 26th November, 1773.

The couple rejoined Kemble’s company initially but were soon working for another, Chamberlain and Crump, and it was while doing so in the spa town of Cheltenham that Siddons’ abilities came to the notice of famed actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick.

Invited to London, her initial foray into acting there, however, fell flat and, following a short-lived season at Drury Lane Theatre which resulted in her services no longer being required (it is believed the fact she had two very young children at the time, having only just given birth to the second, didn’t help her performances), Siddons instead headed to the country and worked in places like York, Manchester and Bath, rebuilding her somewhat battered reputation.

It proved a successful move for when she was invited back to London in 1782, her now not just restored but blossoming reputation preceded her. To much acclaim she performed in the title role in David Garrick’s play, Isabella, or, the Fatal Marriage.

It was to be the first of many high profile roles – the most famous of which was to play Lady Macbeth – and Siddons soon rose to become the most sought-after actress in the city, a position which allowed her to mix among the elite of society (among her friends were counted lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson and philosopher Edmund Burke and she even appeared before King George III and Queen Charlotte). Venerated as a “cultural icon”, her star continued to climb in the 1780s and it was in 1783-84 that she sat for a portrait, The Tragic Muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (pictured).

Her personal life, meantime, was another matter and in 1804, Siddons and her husband – who had increasingly spent time apart during the preceding years, formally separated (William died in Bath four years later). She had also experienced the deaths of many of her children – in fact, only two of her seven children were to outlive her.

Siddons retired from the stage in 1812 – her final moving performance was, you guessed it, as Lady Macbeth – but continued to appear on special occasions until 1819.

She died in June, 1831, and, following a huge funeral, was buried at St Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green. There is a statue of her at the grave. Siddons is among those actresses currently featured in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition The First Actresses – Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The exhibition runs until 8th January (an admission charge applies). For more information visit www.npg.org.uk.

For further reading – Robyn Asleson’s A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists

PICTURE: Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by the Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784  © National Portrait Gallery, London