GRIMALDI, Joseph (1778-1837)
Plaque erected in 1989 by English Heritage at 56 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London, EC1R 4QE, London Borough of Islington
Theatre and Film
JOSEPH GRIMALDI 1778-1837 Clown lived here 1818-1828
Joseph Grimaldi was a performer and dancer who transformed the role of clown into a star of pantomime. His retirement in 1828 prompted a crowd of fans to besiege his Islington home at 56 Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell, where he is now commemorated with a blue plaque.
KING OF CLOWNS
Born into a family of entertainers originally from Italy, ‘Joey’ Grimaldi made his professional début – as Guzzle the Drinking Clown – in 1800. He became the unchallenged ‘king of clowns’ after eclipsing his rival and sometime sidekick, John Baptist Dubois. A vital figure in shaping pantomime as we know it, Grimaldi shone in serious roles too and he could count Lord Byron and William Hazlitt among his fans.
Grimaldi lived at 56 Exmouth Market – formerly 8 Exmouth Street and 8 Braynes Row – from 1818 until 1829. Charles Dickens, who edited Grimaldi’s voluminous memoirs, wrote that after 1820 his subject suffered ‘little or nothing but one constant succession of afflictions and calamities, the pressure of which nearly bowed him to the earth’.
One of Grimaldi’s remaining pleasures was to drink with friends at the Myddleton’s Head, a pub that lay close to Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The theatre had been his stamping ground for more than 30 years. When he retired in 1828, the ailing clown gave a farewell performance there on St Patrick’s Day, after which he wept ‘with an intensity of suffering that it was painful to witness and impossible to alleviate’. The following day, his home in Exmouth Market was besieged by fans.
Apart from the addition of a shop front, number 56 is the only house on the eastern side of the street to have retained most of its 18th-century character. Grimaldi died in 1837 in Islington at 22 Calshot Street (formerly 33 Southampton Street; now demolished).