Thursday, March 3, 2011

Joseph Grimaldi, clown

Joey Grimaldi, clown

Joseph Grimaldi (18 December 1778 – 31 May 1837), was the most celebrated of English clowns, and is credited with being "the first whiteface clown".

Grimaldi was born in Clare Market, London, the son of an Italian, Signor Giuseppe or Joseph 'Iron Legs' Grimaldi, pantomimist, circensian artist and ballet-master at the Drury Lane and Rebecca Brooker, a dancer in the theatre's corps de ballet. Grimaldi's father died in 1788, when Joseph was nine, and plunged the family into debt. When less than two years old, Joseph was introduced to the stage at Drury Lane; at the age of three, he began to appear at the Sadler's Wells theatre.

As a young man, Grimaldi fell in love and married the daughter of the principal proprietor of Sadler's Wells. Maria Grimaldi died in childbirth 18 months after their marriage. He found solace in performance, and eventually married again, to Mary. A son, Joseph Samuel Grimaldi was born and entered the profession, but drank himself to death by the age of thirty.

As a pantomime clown Grimaldi was considered unsurpassable, his greatest success occurring in Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (1806 and often revived).

Joseph Grimaldi was an innovator, his performance as Joey introduced the modern clown to the world, building on the existing role of Clown as a country bumpkin and fool, derived from the Commedia dell'arte; and making the clown the central character in the Harlequinade. His physical comedy was extraordinary, as was his ability to invent visual tricks and buffoonery, and his ability to poke fun at the audience. As Music Hall became popular, he introduced the pantomime dame to the theatre and was responsible for the tradition of audience participation. His most famous song was Hot Codlins - some historians say these are toffee apples, but I think it was simply a hot and spiced baked apple, sold on the street (incidentally the word Codlin or Codling for a cooking apple is a corruption of the french Coeur de Lion, literally Lion-Heart. Whether this was named in honour of its shape, an hommage to great Richard I or simply that you needed to be brave to eat one I cannot tell!).

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 ........

The audience would shout Gin, with some glee, and Grimaldi would fix them with a stare and say Oh! For shame!, in mock disappointment.

A famous 'sad clown' anecdote was first told of Grimaldi: A young man goes to see his doctor. He is overcome by a terrible sadness and doesn't think anything will make him feel better. The doctor says, "Why not do something happy, like going to see Grimaldi the clown?". The young man answers, with a knowing look, "Ah, but Doctor", he says, "I am Grimaldi."

By 1828, he was broke, and benefit performances were held at both Sadler's Wells (17 March) and Covent Garden (28 June). A pension of £100 per annum was instituted by the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund. He could barely walk, but spent his last years at the Cornwallis Tavern, in Pentonville, the landlord, George Cook carrying him back to his nearby lodgings at the end of the evening. On the night of 31 May 1837, he died, owing to the years of extreme physical exertion his clowning had involved. The London Illustrated News wrote Grimaldi is dead and hath left no peer. We fear with him the spirit of pantomime has disappeared. His death was less than three weeks before Queen Victoria ascended the Throne.

Joseph Grimaldi's grave is in Joseph Grimaldi Park (formerly, the courtyard of St. James's Chapel), Pentonville Road in Islington. To this day, on every first Sunday in February, a memorial service is held for Grimaldi at All Saints' Church, Haggerston, Hackney. At this service, hundreds of clowns flock from all over the world in full 'garb', and the service is followed by a show for the children.

My image is based on a very famous print of Joseph Grimaldi, which you can see here.

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