Grimaldi, Joseph [Joe] (1778–1837), actor and pantomimist
by Jane Moody

Grimaldi, Joseph [Joe] (1778–1837), actor and pantomimist, was born on 18 December 1778 in Stanhope Street, Clare Market, London, into a family of dancers and clowns (he claimed, it appears falsely, to have been born a year later). His paternal grandfather, Giovanni Battista ‘Iron Legs’ Grimaldi, was known in Italy and France, and his father, , a dancer and Pantaloon, first appeared in London, possibly as a balletmaster, at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. In 1758–9 Giuseppe Grimaldi was engaged by Garrick to play in pantomimes at Drury Lane; later he also performed at Sadler's Wells. He was notorious for his grotesque and indelicate humour and for his practical jokes. Grimaldi's mother, Rebecca Brooker, danced and played utility parts at Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells. Joe Grimaldi's first appearance, as a child dancer, was at Sadler's Wells on 16 April 1781, when he played one of the Evils which emerged from the box in a pantomime entitled Pandora's Box. He also took part in a Drury Lane pantomime in 1781 or 1782. For some years, between the end of the Christmas pantomime season at Drury Lane and the opening of Sadler's Wells, he attended Mr Ford's academy, a boarding-school at Putney. When the Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells seasons overlapped in early summer and again in early autumn, he regularly acted at Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells on the same night, taking a hackney coach, or occasionally running, from one to another.

At Sadler's Wells, Grimaldi played the dwarf in Valentine and Orson (1794) as well as evil sans-culotte characters and French prisoners of war in the revolutionary dramas then drawing large crowds to the theatre. In 1796 he took the part of an evil witch in Charles Dibdin's pantomime The Talisman, or, Harlequin Made Happy. In 1799 he married Maria Hughes, the eldest daughter of Richard Hughes, one of the Sadler's Wells proprietors. To his enormous sadness, she died a year later in childbirth. Three years later, in 1802, Grimaldi married Mary Bristow, an actress at Drury Lane. Their only son, Joseph Samuel William Grimaldi (1802–1832), was born on 21 November 1802.

In 1799 Grimaldi played a series of legitimate parts at Drury Lane, including a countryman in Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough (a bowdlerized version of Vanbrugh's The Relapse) and a maid in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. As Camazin, a Tartar chief in J. P. Kemble's Lodoiska, he displayed his skill in acrobatic swordsmanship to some acclaim. His crawling fight in this play was said to have provided the inspiration for Kean's final combat in Richard III. The following year he also performed the part of the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet at Drury Lane.

Grimaldi's first appearance as a clown took place at Sadler's Wells in 1800, when he played Guzzle the Drinking Clown in an innovative pantomime called Peter Wilkins, or, Harlequin in the Flying World. The pantomime had been written by Charles Dibdin and the scene painter Robert Andrews. Rather than featuring only one clown, as was customary, Peter Wilkins included two: Grimaldi, and the leading London clown, John Baptist Dubois, who took the part of Gobble the Eating Clown. Peter Wilkins also introduced innovations of costume and make-up for the two clowns, who were dressed in extravagant, particoloured costumes, and appeared with white faces ornamented by two red half-moons on the cheek rather than with the conventional ruddy complexions of eighteenth-century clowns.

In the summer of 1801 Dubois and Grimaldi dramatized their comic rivalry as Sadler's Wells clowns in the form of a scene disputing who could make the ugliest face. At the end of the 1801 season Dubois left Sadler's Wells and Grimaldi rapidly began to be celebrated as the unchallenged king of clowns. In the years that followed he began to perform in the provinces on short trips and also to play assorted comic parts, usually associated with skulduggery. These included one of the leading desperadoes in Dibdin's serio-comic pantomime The Great Devil and Rufo the Robber in Red Riding Hood (Sadler's Wells, 1803). Grimaldi also performed a number of ‘noble savage’ parts, some of them in ‘blackface’. Among these were Friday in Robinson Crusoe, Kanto in La Pérouse, and the Indian Ravin in Ko and Zoa (Sadler's Wells, 1802).

In 1805, having quarrelled with the Drury Lane management, Grimaldi spent time in Dublin performing at Astley's Theatre and at Crow Street. On his return he made his Covent Garden début in October 1806, performing the role of the gentle ‘savage’ Orson (a part originally played by Dubois) in Thomas Dibdin's melodrama Valentine and Orson. But the most famous of his ‘savage’ roles was that of the Wild Man in Charles Dibdin's aquadrama The Wild Man, or, Water Pageant (Sadler's Wells, 1809), written especially for him. Dibdin introduced into this piece a scene, accompanied by a lute, which depicted the influence of music on the ‘savage’ mind. The scene soon became famous in its own right and, billed as ‘The Power of Music’, was performed all over London and in the provinces.

Grimaldi's fame, however, derived from his performances as clown in many pantomimes, both at Sadler's Wells and at Covent Garden, throughout his career. As Charles Dibdin remarked in his Memoirs, Grimaldi ‘in every respect, founded a New School for Clowns’. Together with the pantomime arrangers Charles and Thomas Dibdin and Charles Farley, Grimaldi transformed the clown from a rustic booby into the star of metropolitan pantomime. Exuberant, mischievous, larcenous, and amoral, Grimaldi's clown epitomized the retributive desires of the Regency period. He attacked watchmen, tripped up old women, and stole incessantly, whether sausages, fruit, letters, loaves, or tablecloths. Grimaldi's clown possessed no respect for property, propriety, or authority. The clown also satirized aspects of contemporary British society, as in his ridicule of the Regency dandy and in his comic mockery of absurdities in female dress. In addition Grimaldi was renowned for his transformations, in which, in a parody of the ingenious gadgets produced during this period, he assembled models of living creatures from miscellaneous props such as household objects and vegetables and created absurd stagecoaches from brooms and large cheeses.

One of Grimaldi's greatest successes was his performance in Harlequin and Mother Goose, or, The Golden Egg, the Christmas pantomime written by Thomas Dibdin and performed at Covent Garden in 1806. The piece became the most successful pantomime ever staged at Covent Garden; fashionable and influential people, including Byron and Lord Eldon, flocked from all over London to see it. ‘Never did I see a leg of mutton stolen with such superhumanly sublime impudence as by that man’, Lord Eldon would later remember. Among other memorable productions were Harlequin and Asmodeus, or, Cupid on Crutches (Covent Garden, 1810) in which Grimaldi created a Vegetable Man out of assorted vegetables, including turnip hands and carrot fingers, from the market at Covent Garden. The following year, in Harlequin and Padmanaba, or, The Golden Fish, Grimaldi invented a burlesque coach—from four cheeses, a fender, and a cradle—in imitation of the ostentatious curricle-riding eccentric Romeo Coates. Harlequin and the Red Dwarf (Covent Garden, 1812) included a notorious burlesque of the hussars in which, to the delight of the audience, Grimaldi dressed himself in two black varnished coal scuttles for boots and a white bearskin for a pelisse.

Critics often remarked on the possessed, almost demonic quality of Grimaldi's mime and the expressiveness of his face and gestures. His performances of comic songs, interspersed with his inimitable patter, were celebrated. The most notable of these were ‘A Typitywitchet, or, Pantomimical Paroxysms’, first sung at Sadler's Wells in Charles Dibdin's pantomime Bang up, or, Harlequin Prime (1811), ‘A Man Ran away with the Monument’, from London, or, Harlequin and Time (Sadler's Wells, 1813), and, most famous of all, ‘Hot Codlins’, sung in The Talking Bird, or, Perizade Columbine (Covent Garden, 1819).

Grimaldi made pantomime respectable and also fashionable. He acquired fame and large sums of money, but improvidence, together with an extravagant lifestyle, meant that he rarely kept the money for long. Among his admirers was Lord Byron, who subscribed to Grimaldi's benefit performances at Covent Garden. Grimaldi later met him in 1812 at Berkeley Castle, and, when he left England in 1816, Byron presented the performer with a silver snuff-box. Grimaldi was also much admired by the theatre critic William Hazlitt, and his memoirs were edited by Charles Dickens.

After a disagreement over his salary, Grimaldi left Sadler's Wells in 1816 and went on a very profitable tour in the provinces. Having bought an eighth share in the theatre, he returned to Sadler's Wells in 1818. A year later he became stage manager in succession to Charles Dibdin, who had left after a dispute with the partners. But Grimaldi's health had been declining for some time. In 1822 he played Tycobroc, slave to the Enchanter of Uxi, in an Easter piece called The Vision of the Sun, but in 1823 he handed the part over to his son, who, following his 1814 début in Robinson Crusoe, had appeared with great success as Clown in Harlequin and Poor Robin, or, The House that Jack Built at Covent Garden. By now almost completely disabled, Grimaldi was engaged at Sadler's Wells to oversee the pantomime and coach the clowns. His last appearance in public took place at Drury Lane in June 1825. Grimaldi's son, who had seemed to be full of promise, had become wild and uncontrollable, and drank himself to an early death on 11 December 1832.

Grimaldi died on 31 May 1837 at 33 Southampton Street, Pentonville, London. He was buried in the graveyard at St James's Street Chapel, Pentonville Hill, next to his friend Charles Dibdin.



R. Findlater, Grimaldi, king of clowns (1955) · Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, ed. C. Dickens (1884) · Professional and literary memoirs of Charles Dibdin the younger, ed. G. Speaight (1956) · D. Mayer, Harlequin in his element: the English pantomime, 1806–1836 (1969) · Leigh Hunt's dramatic criticism, 1808–1831, ed. C. Houtchens and L. Houtchens (1949) · H. D. Miles, The life of Joseph Grimaldi (1838) · M. W. Disher, Clowns and pantomimes (1925) · Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, new ser., 1/7 (1827), 108–22 · DNB · IGI · M. W. Disher, ‘Grimaldi, Joseph’, The Oxford companion to the theatre, ed. P. Hartnoll, 3rd edn (1967) · GM, 1st ser., 102/2 (1832), 581


S. De Wilde, etching, pubd 1807, BM, NPG · S. De Wilde, watercolour, c.1807 (as Clown in Harlequin and Mother Goose, or, The golden egg), Garr. Club [see illus.] · J. E. T. Robinson, watercolour, 1819, Garr. Club · T. Blood, stipple, pubd 1820 (after T. Wageman), BM, NPG · W. Greatbach, engraving, 1846 (after drawing by T. Raven), repro. in Dickens, ed., Memoirs, frontispiece · J. Cawse, oils, NPG · oils, Garr. Club · prints, BM, NPG · prints (after J. E. T. Robinson), Harvard TC · prints and pottery, V&A, theatre collections, Harry Beard collection

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Joseph Grimaldi (1778–1837): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11630
Joseph Samuel William Grimaldi (1802–1832): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11631