Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Joseph Grimaldi, A Legendary Clown

Joseph Grimaldi (London, England, 18th December 1778 – London, England, 31st May 1837)


Joseph Grimaldi by John Cawse
Joseph Grimaldi by John Cawse

Those of you who suffer from coulrophobia look away now, as today we welcome a giant of English comedy, the legendary clown and performer, Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi's story is so full of highs and lows that it will take more than one day to tell it, so today I present the first part of Grimaldi's life and his rise to stardom, with more on this celebrated comic performer to come later!

Grimaldi was the latest in a long line of theatricals to bear the name, each noted for their comic and acrobatic or dancing skills. Indeed, when his Italian great-grandfather arrived in England he set his dental practice aside to concentrate on the stage, setting the standard for the Grimaldis who would follow. Our hero's father was Joseph Giuseppe Grimaldi, a noted actor and dancer and his mother, Rebecca Brooker, had been apprenticed to him as a young teen. Although he was almost five decades her senior, she became his mistress and bore him two sons, one of whom was Joseph.

Grimaldi made his stage debut at the age of two when he appeared at Drury Lane, gaining excellent notices just one year later as Little Clown in The Triumph of Mirth; or, Harlequin's Wedding at Sadler's Wells. Audiences were charmed by the bright little boy and Richard Brinsley Sheridan happily added him to the roster of child performers to whom he gave regular repeat bookings at Drury Lane. He consolidated this success by appearing numerous times on the stage of Sadler's Wells and by the age of six, he was considered a very safe pair of hands.

A short foray into education at Mr Ford's Academy did little to stop the boy's meteoric rise and Grimaldi went from strength to strength until his career was staggered by a personal tragedy. In 1788 Grimaldi's father died, leaving the child responsible for his family, who had grown accustomed to an upscale lifestyle. Despite his success the little boy could not afford to keep his mother and brother in their Holborn home and the family eventually moved to the rookery of St Giles, with his brother, John Baptiste, going away to sea at just nine years old. 

When Kemble took over as producer Drury Lane  in 1788, Grimaldi continued at the theatre and began to learn the backstage crafts of scene building and design. However, without his father's guiding hand the boy's career began to slump. He laboured in lesser roles as the years passed until a 1794 performance in Valentine and Orson brought him back to the public eye. Once again the audience took this young performer to their hearts and his reputation was cemented when the 11 year old Grimaldi took the role of Pierrot  in a pantomime version of Robinson Crusoe.

Grimaldi met Maria, the daughter of Richard Hughes, proprietor of Sadler's Wells Theatre, in 1796 and the couple began a devoted courtship, eventually marrying three years later. Grimaldi was now a star and he would go on to become a theatrical legend, even if some of his personal behaviour was just a little strange. That, though, is a story for later.

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