Send in the Clowns

In our last circus and fairground blog “Keeping the Flag Flying”, I promised to bring you instalments about the birth of the British circus, and the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.  These snippets are intended to tease and provoke curiosity in the hope that you would visit one of our museums when we all open to see this fantastic exhibition.  This post will look at one of the most famous sights in the circus, both nationally and internationally; the clown.

Now I know that, to some people, clowns are “scary” and “creepy”, and I understand that they do not have a great image – with the likes of “Pennywise” “Captain Spalding” and “The Joker and Harley Quinn” or IT causing chaos and fear.  But don’t let these characters put you off!  What we intend to do is highlight the clown’s origin, how they became a face of the circus, their make-up and costume and finally their acts and performances.

Stupid fools and scurrilous morons

Comedy has always been a major part of the circus, and before the clown entered the ring it was presented with comic horse riding and equestrian acts.  The clown that we know today is linked closely with the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and the pantomime Harleyquinade (you’ve seen the characters associated with the Venice Carnivale like Harlequin, Columbine and Punchinella; Punch and Judy and pantomime has its origins in this too). 

Right through ancient history there have always been men and women who have had the ability to make people laugh.  Ancient clowns did exist, although they were not known as clowns – the word clown not coming into use until the 16th Century.  The word clown (referring to that of the circus) originated from the Icelandic word “klunni” meaning a clumsy person.

5000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians used to keep African Pygmies known as Dangas to amuse the royal family and Pharaohs.  They used to dress in leopard skins and masks, telling tales of the gods.  Ancient Greece had clown-like characters that wore short tunics, which were padded out at the front and the rear and were accompanied by an exaggerated artificial phallus strapped around the loins.  Greek clowns would act out the great myths and stories of the time.

Ancient Rome had several types of clown or fool. The most famous were the Sannio, who were popular mimes. Then there was the Stupidus – from which our word stupid originated (from the Latin word meaning mimic fool). These clowns usually mimicked the more serious actor in the troupe, and often wore a mask. Another was Scurra (scurrilous), with his physical oddities, who often performed on the streets for passing members of the public.  Finally, there was Moriones (moron), who often had disabilities and were usually uneducated- their main skill was clumsy, slapstick humour.

You probably know of the court jester.  His job was to entertain the court, with songs, riddles, stories and physical comedy routines.  Mary Queen of Scots had a female fool at her court. The very last jester in employment in England was Dickie Pierce, a fool to the Earl of Suffolk, who died at 63in 1728. 

 Clowning around

Portrait of Joseph Grimaldi as Scaramouch

Clowns today look back and associate Joseph Grimaldi as being the start of the modern clown tradition in circuses today.  He was an English actor-clown of the early 1800s whose father was involved with Hughes Royal Circus in London.  As a boy, Joseph appeared as a monkey on a chain in his father’s act in the circus, it was when his father died that his own career started. 

Grimaldi became a performer in theatres across London. Mainly, he performed in pantomimes as a variety of different characters such as Scaramouch from Don Juan (performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre).  It was these pantomime costumes and performances that inspired the stereotypical ideas of a clown’s costume and make up.  The exaggerated outfits, rotund trousers, large shoes and geometrical make up, are thanks to aspects of the many characters, including Harlequin, who Grimaldi often played.  Joseph died at the age of 30 in 1832.

Jack Fossett’s Clown shoes – On display at Haden Hill House loaned from The National Fairground and Circus Archive

Clowning was, at first, one of the all-round skills of circus performers. Along with tumbling and riding, clowning has been applied to almost all kinds of circus act – either part of it or a parody of it.  They were performed in between the feature acts of the circus. So, as the clowns were performing, the crew or “circus hands’ would set up the next act behind them.  Much of the comedy of the clowns was verbal and directed to the audience.

Victorian Clown – Image from the National Circus and Fairground Archive

Smell of the grease paint

The white-faced clown is what most people think of when they hear the word clown.  The ‘white-faced clown’ is the most intelligent of all the clowns and is typically at the top of the pecking order.  Usually the ringleader, he orders the other clowns around, but soon has his own “clownishness” revealed, either by his own stupidity or by his “under-clowns”. 

White-face Clown, with acrobat clown troupe – image courtesy of The National Circus and Fairground Archive

“Under-Clowns” often donned simplified make up

There are two styles of white faced clown and the difference is down to the make-up.  The first, detailed above, consists of a white base and subtle make-up to define the eyes and mouth.  The second is a bit crazier.  Still a white base, but the additional make-up is meant to exaggerate the face and nature of the clown.  Both styles may be seen with a bald cap, with wild hair, or with partial hair. The clown takes his or her natural facial features and exaggerates them, either subtly or outrageously, so that they are more defined for the audience.

Every professional clown has their own make-up design, and there is an unwritten rule that no clown should copy another style.  The world’s oldest clown society “Clowns International” keep records of clown’s faces, which have been painted on ceramic eggs.  This tradition started in 1946 when Stan Bult began painting famous clowns faces on hen’s eggs as a hobby.  Clowns applied for clown eggs, and after Clowns International screened the applicant, a professional artist would paint the faces on ceramic eggs. Only those working clowns with developed visual identities can have their faces painted on eggs. New clowns, young children, and non-performers do not make the cut!

Clown Face Eggs

Why not have ago at decorating your own egg, and show us your creation?

Silly shoes and baggy trousers

Traditionally, the white face clown would wear a one-piece outfit, decorated either snazzily or outlandishly, depending on the clown’s character. Today, this is no longer the case. The white face clown can wear virtually anything that fits in with his character.  Likewise, with make-up, costumes were used to add emphasis and exaggeration, as well as aid the comic performance or routine they were performing.  There are number of costumes on display at Haden Hill House museum for you to enjoy once we open again, including Billy smarts great granddaughter’s costume, and trapeze performer Rebecca Truman’s stilt and aerialist outfits. 

A selection of clown images on display at Haden Hill House for you to enjoy when we are open again.

Images on loan from the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

The tears of a clown

“To run away with the circus is to enter a close-knit world where traditions, skills, language and superstitions have been passed down for generations”

Douglas McPherson – Circus Mania

It can be a hard life in the circus.  Every member of the troupe, joins in with promoting the show, building the tent, setting the seating, fixing and repairing costumes etc. They also perform a number of times a day, and sometimes twice in the evening, which can often take its toll. After a gruelling couple of days, circus life can make the happiest of clowns a little miserable and sad.  As promised, here is a bunch of the saddest looking clowns you have ever seen.  This troupe, according to the archive, were part of a German circus, and this was photo was taken after a solid week of sell out performances.

In the next circus blog, we will be looking at the wild side of the circus – performing tigers, trampolining lions, sea lion brass bands and fortune telling pigs. 

Stay tuned for the next instalment, and stay safe everyone.

Alex- Arts and Projects Officer

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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