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I’ve been a clown for 43 years and help with an organisation called Clowns International, which was founded in 1946. One of our founders, Stan Bult, had a hobby painting the clown faces of members on to eggshells. It was just a pastime but the eggshells developed into a unique record of every performer who joined. Each face is different and the eggs now act as a copyright register for a clown’s personal make-up design.
I’m the register’s curator and archivist. The collection is kept in two places because we have so many. Some are held at the clowns’ church, Holy Trinity in Dalston, east London, the rest at Gerry Cottle’s Clown Museum in Wookey Hole, Somerset. Stan painted his clown faces on to hen eggs that had been blown and were easily broken. When he died in 1966, the remains of his collection ended up on display in a London restaurant. The tradition almost disappeared but then resurfaced again in 1979 using pottery eggs, which are much more robust. About 300 examples, including 24 painted by Stan, are on display at the Wookey museum.
Registering your own egg is one of the highlights of becoming a performer. Clowns aren’t allowed to use the same stage name as a fellow member and face make-up is equally individual. We’ve never had a situation where two faces are the same. If there were a strong similarity, we would help a member to find a unique make-up of their own.
Our official egg painter is currently Debbie Smith, whose clown name is Jolly Dizzy. When a new member joins Clowns International, they send photographs of their face in make-up, as well as a cutting from their wig and fabric from their costume. Debbie then paints the face on to an egg. It’s very intricate work and each one takes three days to complete.
I came to London from Plymouth when I was 17 to join the National Youth Theatre, where I generally worked backstage. But I soon realised that I loved painting my face. My first clowning job was at a garden centre in Chiswick – I had to walk around and act as a moving signpost.
I became a full-time clown in 1981 and I’ve probably worked thousands of parties since then, from bar mitzvahs to weddings. I’ve met the Queen twice, once at the Royal Albert Hall and then again a few weeks later when she opened a television studio. The second time, she recognised my costume and purposely changed course to say hello.
Being Mattie the Clown is one of the best jobs in the world. Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time trying to win children over, which is tough if they don’t like you. I’ve been kicked and had my red nose pinched but usually they end up laughing. There’s no doubt some children find clowns scary but that’s because the make-up is so bold. It was originally created so it could be seen clearly by circus audiences, who often sat a long way from the action.
I live in Clerkenwell and ride a scooter to get to my jobs in London but I never travel in make-up or costume. That’s because one of my worst experiences happened when I was late for a party and decided to ride my scooter in make-up and costume. That was the one day my bike went wrong and I had to flag down a taxi in full-clown mode. There was a near riot when I arrived at the house because the children were so overexcited.
The current recession has hit our business very hard – there aren’t as many children’s parties and events for clowns. I’m fortunate because I also work as a laughter therapist, for Theodora Children’s Trust, visiting hospitals to entertain sick youngsters.
I’m 61 now and I still love what I do. I always try to be happy in life because nobody likes to see a sad clown.
Holy Trinity in Dalston is the official church of the British clown community. Each year, in February, scores of clowns gather at the church in east London to honour the memory of Joseph Grimaldi, the popular 19th-century London-born entertainer who is acknowledged as the father of modern clowning. The habit of calling clowns “joeys” came from his name but, despite his fame, Grimaldi died in poverty.