Obituary: Rosy Gibb

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The Independent Online
Over a 15-year clowning career Rosy Gibb must have entertained perhaps 200,000 children, often doing three or four live shows a day. But equally, she would happily perform to an audience of one.

I once saw her making herself quite invisible behind a very small pink glove puppet, tenderly coaxing a desperately ill child at Great Ormond Street Hospital to respond to its gentle advances. Another time, while she was performing at an Autistic Home in Philadelphia, a shout of laughter erupted from a child whom the staff had that morning decided was unreachable and would have to leave the home: they called Gibb's work that day "a miracle".

It was as natural to her as breathing that a solid proportion of her performances should be for the mentally and physically handicapped, to whom she also taught clown skills, and she raised money from her regular shows and poster sales to give to charity or finance her work with the disadvantaged. But she never called attention to it, because like all the truly generous, she was unaware that she was.

Had she continued as she began, Rosy Gibb would no doubt have had a distinguished career as a literary academic and teacher. She had an MA in Philosophy, Fine Arts and English (for which she received a First), and an MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature, both from Trinity College Dublin. But academia could never provide the "extra", to match the breadth of her talent and aspiration.

The daughter of Jack Gibson, the well-known Irish surgeon-hypnotist, Rosy spent her childhood in Africa, the Channel Isles and Ireland. There was a madcap, storybook richness to it: for instance, in Ethiopia she flat-raced Emperor Haile Selassie's horses, and taught his grandchildren to ride - as well as representing Britain as a showjumper; she won an RSPCA gold medal for rescuing a drowning dog in the Liffey; she was Ireland's first twisting champion, and the swimming records she established at her Channel Islands school still hold, more than 40 years on, as does one of her backstroke records when swimming for Ireland.

At Trinity she was beautiful, brilliant and rebellious - yet also vulnerable and funny. If anything noteworthy happened, according to a contemporary, you'd know Rosy was at the heart of it, as she was, for instance, when she breached the all-male debating society, dressed as a man. When she met Andrew Gibb in her second year, it was love at first sight, and their subsequent marriage was long and happy.

They moved to London, where she took a postgraduate diploma in social administration at the London School of Economics. In Dublin again she initiated the still-extant literacy programme for gypsies, and in London she influenced the Inner London Educational Authority to improve gypsy sites and education, later becoming the ILEA's first travellers' teacher - as well as the only one who ever stayed the course.

But she still sought that "extra", and in mid-life decided, with characteristic single-mindedness, to discover what she really wanted to do. Nothing quite fitted, not even painting, for which she had a great gift (she had her first exhibition a year before she died). Then a friend said she'd be a wonderful clown, took her out busking - and she'd found her metier.

Here was something that called out all her qualities - her impish mischief and instinct for paradox, her clear intelligence and athleticism, her extraordinary capacity to provoke yet protect, her deep love of children - and, above all, her own childlike innocence. She never lost the openness of a child, and that was the essence of her radiance: her "extra" dimension. And she retained, too, throughout her life, the child's (and clown's) capacity to hurl herself into things without fear - or rather, because she did get frightened, without fear of fear.

With exemplary and painstaking care Gibb, nearing 40, taught herself magic, juggling, mime, acrobatics, fire-eating and tightrope-walking, and mined her own psyche, often painfully, to discover the essence of real clowning. The going was so tough, most people would have given up: one of her earlier audiences comprised two drunk men and a dog. But by the early 1980s, during the International Festival of Street Magicians, she was Time Out's Street Magician of the Year, and over that decade slowly earned her reputation as Britain's top female solo clown.

Her audiences loved her for many things, not least for her openness and availability: on stage, as in every social encounter, she would risk herself all the time, emotionally as well as physically; never hiding, constantly taking chances, always learning, living vividly in the moment. She befriended a blind man one night when in Ireland, taking him up the Wicklow mountains to see the sights, both of them giggling at that bizarre idea, and even though she had no doubt been told his name was Ray Charles, it would have meant nothing to her. She had no notion of rank or hierarchy, and somehow never knew if an individual was famous.

But she made friends as easily as she smiled, and astonishingly, those friendships always held. It could equally be, as it often was, the (late) Professor of Philosophy at Oxford or the Professor of Nuclear Physics at Cambridge who turned up at the door as a member of one of the families living under the Westway, or a circus troupe from Germany arriving unannounced to beg a floor for the night.

Magic had always been a strong thread in Gibb's clowning, but in the last five years she focused on it, wanting to learn more, and reach an adult audience. After a memorable "exam" performance in front of her peers, she was admitted to the International Magic Circle, one of two dozen females in a membership of 1,400 men. It was such a star performance, so "extra" to requirements, that there was talk of making her a full member of the "Inner Circle" immediately. But precedent was against it and after some controversy precedent won.

Even so, Rosy Gibb gloried in conquering the male world of magic, and relished her growing reputation within it. By now she was in demand not only in Europe and the Americas, but in the Middle East and India as well. Last September she won from the International Brotherhood of Magicians the prestigious Craig Trophy, the emblem of success in the magic world. She met her final illness with rare grace, and with courage and curiosity too, confronting it as she'd confronted every challenge in her life (and indeed every day in her life) - as an opportunity to extend her limits and learn something new.

Pat Williams

Rosemary Elizabeth Jane Gibson, clown: born Dublin 8 November 1942; married 1967 Andrew Gibb (one son, one daughter); died London 13 July 1997.