Revisiting Mr Grimaldi
Here’s the respected Mr Grimaldi.
And here’s the same chap as most people saw him.
I wrote about him before (seven years ago) because he’s a local resident in my neighbourhood – or rather was. But he’s still around. ‘Bryant & May: The Bleeding Heart’ opens with a young man and his girlfriend in a tiny London park, lying on gravestones. It’s easy to forget that these little green spaces were often created by churchyards, and only became public parks once the churches disappeared. Sometimes the churches remain but the yards are decommissioned for burials, and so one ends up with the very London sight of seeing office workers sitting on graves in the summer eating their lunches.
The other day I returned to the memorial on Pentonville Road, at the gravesite of Joseph Grimaldi (18 December 1778 – 31 May 1837). He’s commemorated in the park where he is buried, which is also a general graveyard, a basketball court and a local public park. I wanted to see if the park still hid a little-known feature. In one corner it contains a memorial to the clown; a pair of coffin-shaped graves that ring out in different tones when you dance on them. A perfect memorial for a man who would have loved the idea of you dancing on his grave.
Grimaldi was the greatest English clown, ‘the first whiteface clown’. His performances made the Clown character the central figure 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.
Clowns register their unique makeup by painting them on the shells of hard-boiled eggs; I have a book of the egg design register at home.
Joseph Samuel Grimaldi, the clown’s son, also 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.’
The basketball players don’t notice that stacked all around them are the headstones of others who were buried here. While Mexico celebrates its dead on November the 1st we tend to incorporate them into places of public recreation.