Clerkenwell clown Mattie Faint is seeking a museum for the country’s best archive of clowning
It is odd to discover that a world-class archive of clown memorabilia is in storage in a Clerkenwell basement. But that’s the case, as Mattie Faint, a clown all his life and the archivist for global clowning body Clowns International, and the curator of the Clowns Gallery-Museum, has bought the collection into safe-keeping with him, following a flood at its previous home, Holy Trinity Church in Dalston.
“It’s been lovely having it close to home and it’s given me a lot of joy in lockdown,” says Mattie, 69. “But it’s a huge collection. We have 22 pairs of clown shoes, about 47 costumes, including ones belonging to Coco the Clown and about 300 painted clown eggs. There’s just so much of it, and it would be great if it could be seen by the public again.”
Mattie, from Plymouth, has lived in London since 1969. For years he worked in the theatre on shows such as Hair and The Rocky Horror Show, then “fell into clowning.”
“I’ve always entertained people, from school plays onwards. When I put the costume on for the first time I thought, ‘This is such an amazing character’. It’s for everyone, not just children. It’s lovely to make people laugh as a job.”
A new documentary film about Mattie, by director Shane O’Neill, called It’s a Serious Business Being a Clown, was recently released which Mattie calls “very funny and very me but quite poignant.” During his half-century career as a clown, Mattie has clowned on Blue Peter, for the Queen and most recently, for a Call the Midwife Christmas Special. Clerkenwell-based for many years, he has a special fondness for the area’s clown Joseph Grimaldi and has old posters advertising his harlequin shows.
“He lived for years in Exmouth Market and he’s buried in the old St James’ Chapel Churchyard, Pentonville Road, now Grimaldi Park, so he’s very close.”
In an era of online entertainment has clowning maintained its popularity? “Well, in this day and age, young people are so distracted by things like social media,” says Mattie. “But I think everyone loves a clown.”
Although not a fan of clowns being used as sinister figures in film, Mattie is at ease about such popular figures as Ronald McDonald, the clown associated with the fast food chain. “Clowning has always been a popular form of entertainment and has never gone away,” he says. “From Charlie Chaplin to Norman Wisdom, Ken Dodd to Mr Bean, there have always been clowns.”
There has been a renewed interest in clowning from artists including Sam Taylor Johnson, Helen Champion and Luke Stephenson which has been taking the study of clowns in a new direction. Clowns have been around forever, from Roman times to the Commedia dell’arte in medieval Italy. “Clowns have the ability to talk directly to their audience,” says Mattie. “The painted clown face became popular from about 1800, so their character could be seen from a distance on stage or in the circus. One of the best things about clowning is that it can always be spontaneous and unscripted. Clowns can go off in any direction, which is what children themselves do”.
The collection is now the bedrock of Clowns International, and Mattie is seeking a new museum venue. “Lots of people used to come to the church, to see the museum there,” he says. “In fact, we’ve had five incarnations of the museum in the last 32 years.”
Now the collection awaits a new venue that can do it justice. “It’s a vast collection of things. One idea is the clown egg collection could be displayed at the new Museum of London with some of our unique costumes. I’m sure lots will have to stay as an archive but if there was a venue in Clerkenwell – well, that would be perfect.”
It would also be a post pandemic tonic. “Everything’s become very serious,” says Mattie. “I think we’re all crying out to laugh at things again.”