Deep in residential Dalston, you’ll find a church called the Holy Trinity. The architecture is a little unusual, but would probably not turn any heads. You’d be more than likely to walk right past it. Little would you know that in doing so, you would be missing out on one of London’s most hidden and unusual attractions. This is London’s Clown Church. Walk round to the back of the church, and you’ll find a small sign reading ‘Clowns Gallery-Museum’. Most of the time, the museum is closed. On the first Friday of every month, however, Museum Director, Mattie Faint, and General Secretary, Antony Eldridge, dust off their costumes, paint their faces and open the rusty back door of the church to visitors.
The Friday that we visited was the 6th of April. The sun was shining and it was one of the first warm days of the year. Inside the church, though, it could not have been more than 10 degrees. We were immediately greeted by Antony Eldridge, aka Bluebell, in full costume. He’s wearing a police helmet, two enormous fake teeth protrude out of his mouth, and every time he leans against something, his oversized rubber police baton squeaks loudly. Clown statuettes, paintings, posters and more cover the place from floor to ceiling.
The Clowns Church
Bluebell gives us the grand tour of the place, starting with the church itself. This church has hosted London’s famous Clowns’ Grimaldi Memorial Service, however, doesn’t do so today. The church service honouring Joseph Grimaldi is held annually at the nearby All Saints Haggerston, where space is less tight. It is attended by clowns and press from far and wide, who come to pay homage to the father of clowning. The white-washed church room at the Holy Trinity doesn’t look particularly clownish. Upon closer examination, however, we spot a single stained glass window depicting a grinning clown. This, of course, is Grimaldi himself. The window was donated to the clown church by Gerry Cottle, circus aficionado and owner of the Clowns Gallery’s sister attraction, the Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset.
The Clowns Gallery-Museum
In the adjoining room, Bluebell talks us through a wall of photographs and drawings of clowns throughout the ages. A few metres of wall space contains all the information you could ask for on the history of clowning. You see, although Grimaldi founded clowning as it is known today, the tradition goes back far longer. Jesters, explains Bluebell, were essentially clowns. Even the ancient Egyptians had clowns. Grimaldi’s breakthrough was the signature face painting style that most modern clowns use. Other performers soon adopted Grimaldi’s white base, exaggerated red grin and cheeks.
It’s not all as simple as it looks, though. This brings us onto one of the museum’s most historically significant exhibits, the world’s largest collection of clown eggs. This is one of the eccentric-seeming exhibits that draws people into the museum. It isn’t, however, as eccentric as it seems. Bluebell explains that a clown’s makeup is a unique trademark, and the eggs are a form of copyright. It was Stan Bult, a chemist, who began the tradition of painting clowns’ faces on eggs as a hobby. The Clowns Gallery holds around 40 of Bult’s original eggs, as well as a number of reproductions. A carefully printed label with the name of the clown accompanies each egg on display. The handiwork is actually quite impressive. Each egg clown wears a signature hat or has a tuft of brightly coloured hair attached. Grimaldi’s stage persona, ‘Joey’, is instantly recognisable.
From here, Bluebell leads us into the back room of the church. He closes the gigantic wooden door behind us, revealing a clown’s costume in a glass case on the wall. This, he tells us, is one of the most unique items in the collection. The costume is the only surviving outfit worn by Coco the Clown, considered one of the greatest clowns in history.
Bluebell opens yet another door. Behind it, we see a narrow winding staircase leading down into the church’s basement. If Bluebell weren’t so friendly, we might have been worried. We make our way down the stairs, Bluebell struggling behind us in his oversized clowns’ shoes. The basement is a treasure trove: if we’d thought there was quite a lot of stuff upstairs, this was a whole other level. Dozens of clown portraits cover an entire wall. Bluebell points proudly to his own photograph, in which he stands in a fireman’s outfit atop a ladder, smiling against a bright red background.
At the back of the room is a rack full of clowning costumes and what looks like a dressing table. The hand-lettered label on the chair next to it says ‘Blanco’. More clown memorabilia covers floor, walls and ceiling. A pile of clown paintings rests in the corner. On a shelf near the staircase, we notice an impressive collection of awards. Bluebell explains that these are only a few of the original collection. Many were lost in transit somewhere between the Clown Church and Wookey Hole, where the undisplayed 90% of the museum’s collection is stored. ‘One of those awards was mine!’, Bluebell exclaims sadly.
Having examined every picture and statuette, we climb the stairs back up to the church. We take one last look around, taking in the unique atmosphere. Our American intern, Aidan, poses for a photo with a white-faced ventriloquist clown and his stuffed rabbit. When the folks back home ask him what his internship was like, no doubt this will be the photo he pulls up on his phone.
Visit the Clown Church, Museum and Gallery
The Clown Church & Clowns Museum-Gallery is open every first Friday of the month from 12 to 5 PM. The Holy Trinity Church is on Beechwood Road in Dalston, but the entrance to the museum is around the back on Cumberland Close. Entry is free.
We’d like to extend a big thank you to Antony Eldridge (Bluebell), and the team at the museum for showing us around and making us feel very welcome indeed.[mc4wp_form id=”1182”]