Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Grimaldi, Joseph

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GRIMALDI, JOSEPH (1779–1837), actor and pantomimist, born 18 Dec. 1779 in Stanhope Street, Clare Market, came of a family of dancers and clowns. His grandfather, Giovanni Battista Grimaldi, was known in Italy and France, and his father, Giuseppe Grimaldi (d. 23 March 1788, aged 75), is said to have acted at the Théâtres de la Foire in France, to have first appeared in London at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, and to have played at Drury Lane in 1758-9, and subsequently at Sadler's Wells. During the Lord George Gordon riots he wrote, instead of 'No Popery,' 'No Religion' on his door. Grimaldi's mother, a Mrs. Rebecca Brooker, danced and played utility parts at the last-named theatres. The first appearance of 'Joe' Grimaldi was at Sadler's Wells, 16 April 1781, as an infant dancer, and he took part in the pantomime of 1781, or that of 1782, at Drury Lane. In the intervals between his engagements at the two theatres he went to a boarding-school at Putney, kept by a Mr. Ford. In successive pantomimes at Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells he acquired mastery of his profession. A list of the pieces in which he appeared is valueless, and his adventures, though they furnish material for a volume, are to a great extent imaginary, or consist of accidents such as are to be expected in his occupation. After his father's death he was allowed to act at the two houses—Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells—on the same night, and had to run from one to the other. His boyish amusements consisted in breeding pigeons and collecting insects. He is said to have collected with great patience four thousand specimens of flies. In 1798 he married Maria Hughes, the eldest daughter of one of the proprietors of Sadler's Wells. His work at this time was arduous, and his earnings were considerable. He was, however, through life imprudent or unlucky in his investments, and rarely succeeded in keeping the money he made. His health, moreover, suffered from his pursuits. In 1799 his first wife died, and in 1802 he married Miss Bristow, an actress at Drury Lane. In 1803 his brother John Baptist, who had gone to sea, turned up for a single occasion, and then disappeared in a manner that gave rise to strong presumption that he had been murdered. At this time Grimaldi is credited in the 'Memoirs' with having played some parts in the regular drama. Aminadab in 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife' is advanced as one. No such part, however, occurs in the comedy of that name. He sometimes played parts in melodrama, and once, for his benefit at Covent Garden, Bob Acres in the 'Rivals.' A quarrel with the management at Drury Lane was followed by a visit to Dublin, where he acted under Thomas and Charles Dibdin at Astley's Theatre, and subsequently in Crow Street. On 9 Oct. 1806, as Orson in Thomas Dibdin's 'Valentine and Orson,' he made his first appearance at Covent Garden. During the O.P. riots Grimaldi went on in his favourite character of Scaramouch, and effected a temporary lull in the storm. His visits to country towns—Manchester, Liverpool, Bath, Bristol, &c.—developed into a remunerative speculation. As Squire Bugle, and then as clown in the pantomime of 'Mother Goose,' Covent Garden, 26 Dec. 1806, he obtained his greatest success. This pantomime was constantly revived. In 1816 Grimaldi quitted Sadler's Wells and played in the country, but returned in 1818, having purchased an eighth share of the theatre. In this and following years his health began to decline. From 1822 his health grew steadily worse, and he was unable to fulfil his engagements at Covent Garden. In 1825 he was engaged as assistant manager at Sadler's Wells, at a salary of 4l. a week, subsequently diminished by one half. On Monday, 17 March 1828, he took a benefit at Sadler's Wells. On 27 June of the same year, at Drury Lane, he took a second benefit, and made his last appearance in public. On this occasion he played a scene as Harlequin Hoax, seated through weakness on a chair, sang a song, and delivered a short speech. His second wife died in 1835, and on 31 May 1837 he died in Southampton Street, Pentonville. He was interred on 6 June in the burial-ground of St. James's Chapel, Pentonville Hill, in the next grave to that of his friend Charles Dibdin. As a clown Grimaldi is held to have had no equal. His grimace was inexpressibly mirth-moving; his singing of 'Tippety Witchet,' 'Hot Codlins,' and other similar ditties, roused the wildest enthusiasm, and with him the days of genuine pantomime drollery are held to have expired. He was a sober man, of good estimation, and all that is known of him is to his credit. Pictures of Grimaldi in character are numerous. One by De Wilde, as clown, is in the Mathews Collection at the Garrick Club. A series of sixteen coloured engravings, representing the principal scenes in 'Mother Goose,' was published by John Wallis in 1808. A picture of him in ordinary dress, by S. Raven, is in an edition of the 'Memoirs,' in which are, of course, many celebrated pictures in character by George Cruikshank. The manuscript of Grimaldi's ' Memoirs,' of which a small portion only has been printed, was in the possession of Henry Stevens. Many residences in London are associated with Grimaldi, the best known being 8 Exmouth Street, Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, where he lived in 1822.

In 1814, in 'Robinson Crusoe,' his son, Joseph S. Grimaldi, made, as Friday, a very successful début, and began thus an ill-disciplined and calamitous career, during which he was engaged at Covent Garden and elsewhere. He took for a while his father's position, but died in 1832 of delirium, aged 30.

[The only authority for the facts of Grimaldi's life is the Memoirs, ed. by Boz, i.e. Charles Dickens (2 vols. 1838), extracted from Grimaldi's recollections, and the notes and additions variously attributed to C. Whitehead and J. H. Horn. Notes and Queries, 3rd, 5th, and 7th ser., supply many particulars and some letters. Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, i. 108-22, supplies a memoir with a portrait, and the most elaborate account accessible of his method as a clown. A Life of Grimaldi by Henry Downes Miles, 1838, Theatrical Biography, 1824, and the Dublin Theatrical Observer, vol. vi. may be consulted. Genest appears to pass over Grimaldi without mention.]

J. K.