February 8, 2016
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.
Joe 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.
This Week in London – The Clowns’ Service has a new venue; Sir Jacob Epstein at the Foundling Museum; Mark Boxer’s caricatures at the Cartoon Museum…
January 29, 2015
• The 69th annual Clowns’ Service will be held this Sunday – but the venue has changed. An annual tradition since 1946, the service is held in memory of Regency performer (and man hailed as the “inventor” of the modern clown), Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837). It has been held at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston since 1959 after the previous building where it was held – St James’ Chapel in Pentonville Road; site of Grimaldi’s grave – was gutted in a fire (permission was given for clowns to attend in costume in 1967) but this year, due to repairs at Holy Trinity, the service is being held at sister church All Saints, Livermore Road, in Haggerston (E8 4EZ) (www.trinitysaintsunited.com). Kicks off at 3pm but you’ll have to be early to find a space. About 60 clowns usually attend and a clown show for children follows.
• Bronze sculptures and drawings of babies and children by Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) form the basis of a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. Sir Jacob Epstein: Babies and Bloomsbury features portraits of Epstein’s own children and grandchildren and those of friends and contemporaries. The artist lived in Bloomsbury himself between 1914 and 1927 during which time he had five children from a series of extramarital affairs (interesting his long-suffering wife Margaret, herself unable to have children, brought up the youngest and oldest of these and put up with his affairs until her death in 1947 – although she is believed to have shot his long-term lover Kathleen Garman, later his wife and Lady Epstein, in the shoulder with a pearl-handled pistol. Also opening at the Foundling Museum tomorrow is a display of four rarely-exhibited portraits of Georg Frideric Handel and contemporaries Corelli, Geminiani and Daniel Purcell which are on-loan from the Royal Society of Musicians and which once hung in the royal box of King George III. Both exhibitions run until 10th May. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.
• On Now: The Caricatures and Cartoons of Mark Boxer. This exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury features more than 100 of Boxer’s caricatures and cartoons from The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The London Review of Books and The Observer. Among the more than 80 caricatures on display – works for which he is particularly noted – are those of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II, Antonia Fraser, Seamus Heaney, Tony Benn, Clive James, Barry Humphries and David Frost. Runs until 22nd March. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.cartoonmuseum.org.
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December 20, 2013
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.
February 10, 2011
• 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.