Joseph Grimaldi (18 December 1778 – 31 May 1837), was an English actor and comedian who is perhaps best known for his invention of the modern day whiteface clown. He chiefly appeared at Drury Lane in pantomime where his greatest success was appearing in Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg and followed with a successful performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Born in Clare Market, London, he was introduced to the stage at Drury Lane; at the age of three and began to appear at the Sadler's Wells theatre.
Read the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, free from the Internet Archive. 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 - literally, Toffee Apples:
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 (later also told of Grock):
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."
Comedy performer Tony Allen said of Grimaldi's performance:
Any description of Joey Grimaldi's varied talents always includes his unusual skill of lampooning popular figures of the day by apparently re-arranging fruit, vegetables and cooking utensils and other every day items on a barrow. It wasn't a one-off joke, he was known for it and he rang the changes. For example: upper class dandies, the Prince Regent included, had made the Hussar uniform high fashion. Now just how Grimaldi arranged a coal scuttle, a muff and a full-length coat into a primitive cartoon sculpture that had a Covent Garden audience of 2,500 rolling in the aisles night after night was beyond me. I assumed that an allusion to royalty was dangerous and his comic genius must have been in the execution, leaving the joke therefore lost to us.
Suffering from ill health, Grimaldi retired from the stage. In his farewell speech he told his audience:Like vaulting ambition, I have overleaped myself and pay the penalty in advanced old age. It is four years since I jumped my last jump, filched my last oyster, boiled my last sausage and set in for retirement. 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. He had become an invalid, owing to the years of extreme physical exertion his clowning had involved. The Illustrated London News wrote; Grimaldi is dead and hath left no peer. We fear with him the spirit of pantomime has disappeared.
Grimaldi requested that after his death he be decapitated before burial, ostensibly because of a fear of burial alive
Joseph Grimaldi's grave is in Joseph Grimaldi Park (formerly, the courtyard of St. James's Chapel), Pentonville Road in Islington. There is a blue plaque on a building in Granville Road, Finchley, commemorating that he once lived nearby.
Memorial and Clowns' gallery
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. (This memorial service was used as part of the setting of the climax of the 1989 romantic comedy Her Alibi, although in the film it took place on July 26.) The church hall had been the home of the Clowns' Gallery, but after a fire they relocated to a nearby community centre. The Clowns Museum/Gallery has since moved to Wooky Hole.
His Memoirs in two volumes (1838) were edited by Charles Dickens. The original editions of Grimaldi's memoirs are very hard to find.
The 'Memoirs' as they now exist leave much to be desired, since the editing was poorly done and the finished publication was based on an earlier editing job. Much of 'Memoirs' was not even written by Grimaldi (in the 1st person) but rather produced in the 3rd person (Dickens' technique). The original manuscript from which the 'Memoirs' was derived has been lost. However Richard Findlater suggests that the original work may exist in a private collection.