Mattie Faint has lived in Clerkenwell for 40 years, and is a clown as well as curator of the recently relaunched Clowns Gallery Museum in Dalston.
He talks to Andre Paine about honouring Joseph Grimaldi, their collection of clown face eggs and 43 years in a job that’s never dull…
How did you become Mattie the Clown in the early Seventies?
My name’s Matthew and ‘Matti’ means mad or foolish in Italian, so it’s a really appropriate name actually. Even at junior school my nickname was ‘Smiler’. Coco the Clown was my inspiration, I saw him as a kid when he came to Plymouth.
Clowning is a very special path – certainly in hospitals as a laughter therapist – and never boring. It’s often the first time that children have seen performers and they’re quite intrigued by you.
Who have you clowned around with?
I’ve met the Queen twice, once at the Albert Hall where we shook hands and then she was opening the ITN building in Gray’s Inn Road. She came over and said ‘Hello, have you been entertaining the children?’. Then the Duke of Edinburgh said ‘You don’t work here as well do you?’. I said, ‘Yeah I read the news on a Sunday, haven’t you seen me?’. Never a dull moment. There are so few things in life you can do that make other people laugh.
In February, you held the annual memorial service for pioneering clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837). How did it go?
We had 700 people, there was standing room only. Everybody had a great time. It’s a memorial service for Grimaldi and a blessing for clowns. February is the beginning of the [circus] season, so it’s to bless the season really. It’s our 70th anniversary next year – it was started in 1946 by [clowning organisation] Clowns International. The service used to be at St James’s in Pentonville Road. In 1967, Smokey, who was one of our first chairmen, gained permission for clowns to come in costume. So then it became far more of an event. After this year’s service, I put on an hour-long show in front of the altar.
Grimaldi performed at Sadler’s Wells and lived in Exmouth Market. How do you capture his spirit today?
Well his spirit hangs in all of us as clowns. He started the path that a lot of clowns have gone down. He’s an important figure in Clerkenwell. Dickens, of course, rewrote the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi after he died as a tribute. Every year on 31 May we have a memorial afternoon around his grave [in Joseph Grimaldi Park, Pentonville Road] because he is the father of the modern clown really. He’s the inspiration behind a lot of comedy routines – the pantomime dame started with him. So he was a big innovator in the art, and a performer of such high calibre that his shows were always full at Sadler’s Wells and Drury Lane.
How long have you been managing the Clowns Gallery Museum at the rear of Holy Trinity Church?
I’ve been the curator for 25 years and we’ve moved it about six times. Because we can’t afford a huge museum space in London, the main part of our museum is down in Somerset, including the egg collection. All clowns have their faces registered on eggs and the register is kept at Wookey Hole. We have 250 eggs in Wookey, 24 from the original collection in 1946. The eggs in Dalston are made from photos of the original collection, including some famous clowns – Coco, Grimaldi, Grock.
Can you tell us about the stained glass Grimaldi?
The stained glass window was put in the church in 1975, sponsored by [circus owner] Gerry Cottle and made in the Clerkenwell Workshops. It’s a very sacred corner of the church.
What do you enjoy about living in Clerkenwell?
I love Clerkenwell. It’s so close to everywhere and there are lots of secret pockets. The tops of the buildings I always find fantastic. In St John Street is the Ingersoll Building [former warehouse of the watch manufacturer], and since it’s been refurbished they’ve scraped the paint off the 1920s mosaic border at the top. Clerkenwell was well known for the watch industry, and it’s still a great place if you want a watch repaired.
‘Grimaldi’s the inspiration behind comedy routines like the pantomime dame’
Where do you go to relax from clowning?
Little Bay in Farringdon Road. It’s lovely, the food is always fantastic. It’s bohemian with very nice nouvelle cuisine – but cheap. It’s always full. And you get opera twice a week.
Do you get spotted in EC1?
Nobody would know me out of costume, which is the nice thing about clowning – you can be out there performing and later you can disappear. The children walk right past you. I remember I once said ‘hello’ in clown voice to a little girl, who looked at me and said ‘Who’s that mummy?’. And her mother told her: ‘That’s Mattie the Clown disguised as a man’. I’ve always thought it would be a lovely epitaph: here lies Mattie the Clown disguised as a man.
The Clowns Gallery Museum is open on the first Friday of the month, 12 noon-5pm, and by appointment. Holy Trinity Church (rear entrance), Beechwood Road, E8 3DY.