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Jester minute! We step inside the Dalston church that opens as a clown museum for one day a month

PUBLISHED: 12:00 02 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:45 02 August 2016

Clowns International Gallery and Archives, Cumberland Close, Dalston. From left: Spotty, Gingernutt, Bluebottle and Mattie (Photo: Polly Hancock)

Clowns International Gallery and Archives, Cumberland Close, Dalston. From left: Spotty, Gingernutt, Bluebottle and Mattie (Photo: Polly Hancock)

Archant

The Clowns’ Gallery in Dalston opens just once a month. The Gazette asks Mattie, Bluebottle, Spotty and Gingernutt about the history behind its doors.

Gingernutt, real name Ian Thom, with one of his spare clown shoes (Photo: Polly Hancock) Gingernutt, real name Ian Thom, with one of his spare clown shoes (Photo: Polly Hancock)

“It’s a cornucopia of clowns. It’s like being inside an exploding Fabergé egg.” Gingernutt – dressed in red tartan with white paint encircling his lips and, of course, a red nose – says these words, as I stare in awe at the artefacts crammed into Dalston’s Clowns’ Gallery.

Holy Trinity Church hosts the only museum in the country dedicated to the art, and behind the blue wooden door off Cumberland Close the emporium boasts oversized shoes, painted eggs, clown thimbles, one-wheeled bikes, old show posters, costumes called “motley” and props like a water-squirting trolley with a spinning umbrella.

The idea of setting up the museum dates back to 1947, and became a reality when Clowns International moved to Holy Trinity from Pentonville – when the original Grimaldi church was deconsecrated – and set up shop in the room at the back of the church.

“That was in 1959 and we haven’t stopped since,” confides another clown Mattie Faint, who became a professional aged 17, 46 years ago.

"As clowns die, I find their costumes and shoes and I buy them. The whole place is full of treasures"

Mattie Faint

“As clowns die, I find their costumes and shoes and I buy them,” he says. “The whole place is full of treasures.”

He estimates what’s on display is just 15 per cent of their total collection.

The clowns were threatened with eviction three years ago, when plans to demolish and rebuild Holy Trinity School opposite meant pupils would be taught inside the church. But they put up a fight and moved the museum into a previously rubbish-filled room which they throw open to the public once a month.

Grimaldi, the father of clowning as we know it today, features heavily. One of the “prizes” of the collection is a statue of him that would have been on sale to Sadler’s Wells theatre-goers in 1810 during his performances.

Mattie Faint with the actual jacket worn by CoCo the Clown in the 1950s and 60s (Picture: Polly Hancock) Mattie Faint with the actual jacket worn by CoCo the Clown in the 1950s and 60s (Picture: Polly Hancock)

“His career was quite short because he worked himself to death,” says Tony, who is a fount of clowning knowledge.

“He did a lot of falls, and when he was 23 a gun went off in his pocket and blew half his leg off.

“Grimaldi wasn’t the first clown. Clowning has been going on forever, but he took the role and went with it, and people came to see him in a show because they knew it would be great.”

According to Spotty, the “most valuable thing in here, besides the laughter of children”, is a contemporary painting of Grimaldi’s last performance in 1823 when he collapsed on stage.

A display cabinet at the church dedicated to Joseph Grimaldi (Picture: Polly Hancock) A display cabinet at the church dedicated to Joseph Grimaldi (Picture: Polly Hancock)

But perhaps the “coup” of the whole collection is the costume of Coco – a Russian-born clown whose son became the original Ronald MacDonald in America.

“It’s like the Turin shroud,” jokes Spotty. “A lot of us became clowns because we saw Coco in this costume when we were little.”

Born Nicolai Poliakff in 1900, he toured with the Bertram Mills circus in the days when they had lions and elephants.

Mattie says: “When I was a kid his face was made into the back of the cornflakes packet, and I remember cutting these out.

Bluebottle, real name Tony Eldridge (Photo: Polly Hancock) Bluebottle, real name Tony Eldridge (Photo: Polly Hancock)

“A lot of the lines he has on his face are the lines I have on my face when I put on my make up. He was my hero.”

They bought the costume at an auction.

Mattie remembers: “We had it on a table, all the clowns were standing around it very excited. It was almost like an autopsy. There were strong lights, and we found his gloves in the pocket. It had all his badges on it. It was almost like he had just stepped out of it.”

The clowns are facing an uncertain time, now that the school will move out of the church – which has a stained glass window of Grimaldi – in September.

“We hope they will appreciate this is a cultural benefit,” says Bluebottle, aka Tony Eldridge.

The Clowns’ Gallery is open on Friday from noon to 5pm.

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