Making the slap stick

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The Independent Culture
CLOWNS, as everyone knows, are vulnerable, ambiguous creatures, poised uneasily between laughter and sadness, spontaneity and formalism. Boundaries between act and actor are elusive; so are boundaries between individual acts and wider traditions of clowning. For the spectator, such uncertainties add to the mysterious, slightly unsettling appeal of the clown. For those who earn their living from clowning, they can be more problematic. A clown's face is his living; if a rival plagiarises it, his earning capacity may be drastically impaired.

Hence the eggs in these pictures. For more than 50 years, a growing number of British clowns have been unofficially patenting their "slaps", or faces, on a collection of eggs. The surviving remnants of this collection are housed in the Clowns' Gallery in Hackney, east London. The tradition was started by the circus enthusiast Stan Bult, who began to paint clowns' make-ups (including that of the famous Coco) on to eggs in the Fifties to supplement his collection of circus ephemera. Bult's collection then became part of a clown archive housed at St James's Church in Islington (where the great clown Joseph Grimaldi is buried). In 1959, the archive moved to the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, which took over from St James's as Britain's "clowns' church". ("When we are tempted in our pride to dizzy heights of sin," reads one hymn regularly used there, "beneath our feet, oh Lord, provide a ripe banana skin...") Then, in 1994, the archive moved to Hackney, where the Gallery now occupies part of a former Territorial Army Drill Hall.

Sadly, Stan Bult's own collection disappeared in the Sixties (some say broken, others stolen). But by the late Eighties, Bluey Brattle, chairman of Clowns International (formerly based at the clowns' church), had been building up his own collection for nearly a decade, and this became the prize exhibit of the new Gallery.

To what extent it is exhibit and to what extent it is register is hard to determine (another clown- ish ambiguity). The eggs in the collection do not have the legal force of registered trademarks, but anyone who performs behind a registered face that is not his own can confidently expect to be ostracised by the circus community. As a result, clowns are happy to pay £10 registration for the unofficial "slap protection" that a face in the register secures.

Clowns provide the egg painter with photographs of themselves, as well as material from their costumes and wigs. Kim Maher, the current artist- in-residence, then assembles the material on the "shells" (real blown eggs have been superseded by porcelain ones) and paints on the design.The variety of the resulting collection is a testament to the inventiveness that modern clowns have taken to their faces.

All modern clowns share the same debt to Grimaldi (whose big red grin was the toast of London in the early 19th century), as well as to the more ancient traditions of Pierrot, Harle- quin and Auguste; but, beyond that, each clown proudly creates his own facial tradition. And even if painted eggs will never be as effective as highly-paid copyright lawyers, the Gallery's collection at least serves another purpose: as a permanent document of the style, skill and history of one of the most ephemeral of all the arts.

! The Clowns' Gallery is open to the public on the first Friday of each month or by appointment with the Gallery coordinator (0171 723 3877).