Curator's Choice: The Theatre Museum

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The Independent Culture
My personal choice from the collection is a silver plate figure of the clown, Joseph Grimaldi, which dates to the mid-19th century. Like the man, the piece is designed to surprise, the head coming off to reveal a vinegar bottle while the torso reveals salt and pepper pots inside the breeches, complete with goose-headed spoons. It stands about 9 in high, and is a three-dimensional representation of Grimaldi in a characteristic pose, almost as if he is about to leap on stage and say his famous catchphrase, 'Here we are again'.

Before his time, the absolute star in pantomime was Harlequin and shows were always named after the character. Yet soon everyone was flocking to see Grimaldi perform, either at Sadler's Wells, Drury Lane, or at Covent Garden where he had his huge hit in 1806 as the Squire and the Clown in Harlequin and Mother Goose.

Pantomimes at that time were divided into two parts, the first half invariably involving the story of a young girl betrothed to an old man whom she didn't really want to marry, followed by the Harlequinade which featured a long chase sequence where Harlequin and the Clown helped the young lovers. After Grimaldi, the clown changed from being a supporting character to becoming the crowd- puller for the whole show. Grimaldi was an excellent mimic: he sang and was an incredible acrobat. The figurine is a reflection of his huge popularity and is not only a very satisfying object aesthetically but shows the man and his stance so well. It is an object of which he would have approved as it is beautifully crafted but not useless.

Catherine Haill is curator of the Theatre Museum: Tues-Sun 11.00-7.00pm, Russell St, London WC2 (071-836 7891)

(Photograph omitted)

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