Dancing On Graves

London, Observatory, The Arts

I stumbled across this new memorial yesterday on Pentonville Road, at the gravesite of Joseph Grimaldi (18 December 1778 – 31 May 1837). He’s commemorated in the little park where he is buried. It features a pair of coffin-shaped graves, and when you dance on them they ring out in different tones, making music. A perfect memorial for a man who would have loved the idea of you dancing on his grave.

Grimaldi was the greatest English clown, and is credited with being “the first whiteface clown”. His performances made the Clown character the central character in British harlequinades. He was born in Clare Market, London, the son of an Italian, Signor Joseph ‘Iron Legs’ Grimaldi, ballet-master at the Drury Lane and Rebecca Brooker, a dancer in the theatre’s corps de ballet. Grimaldi’s father died when he was nine, and plunged the family into debt. His son was on the stage at Drury Lane before his second birthday. At the age of three, Joseph 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 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.

Grimaldi became crippled and broken by his energetic performances, and in his final years was supported by benefits thrown by his old friends at Sadler’s Wells. 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.’

Every first Sunday in February there’s a clowns’ service, where hundreds of clowns from around the world gather at All Saints’ Church, Hackney.

4 comments on “Dancing On Graves”

  1. I.A.M. says:

    Do the six panels comprising each coffin figure represent a particular note on a scale?

  2. Martha says:

    When I lived on the Caledonian Road, I often walked through that park, coming or going from Chapel Market. So many of your posts are about the part of London I think of as home. Thank you.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I assume IAM is correct about the sections – so you can only play in part of C major, I’ll bet. Unless they’ve actually put it in a minor key. So many people are afraid of clowns that dancing on the grave could be very popular.

  4. jan says:

    O this is the sort of stuff that really makes me homesick for London i’d have been there dancing round on them coffins (in full uniform probably did i ever tell u about the time there was a phone call went in about me dressed as above testing out a kids slide made down a good slope one very harsh 1980s winter well someone had to see how the ice was running for the kids didn’t they.)

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