‘Clown and Crocodiles’ (Thursday 11 October 2018)
Half a mile of the dusty, grey concrete and glass blocked, wide worn, perspective straight, whitelined rise of Pentonville Road brings me to the iron railed and gated Joseph Grimaldi Park. It occupies the former churchyard of St James’s, built in 1787/8 as a chapel to serve the newly laid out suburb of Pentonville (named after Henry Penton who, from 1773, developed this 66 acres of rural farmland into a grid system of streets and squares).
Where the chapel once stood, dead centre to its grounds now stands Grimaldi Park House (built in 1990 as offices, a pastiche of the original chapel design which had fallen out of use and was demolished a few years before). Its facade catches today’s warming autumn sun and tree shadows scribble across.
I push open the stiff gate into a shady rectangular area and weave the shady paths between rust leafed chestnut and plane trees, humped and rounded privet hedges hugging the base of their trunks, past stone banana- shaped benches. Only one occupied- a worried young woman rummaging through her bag. Ancient gravestones, words eroded, stacked like ill matched teeth against the walls, separating this quiet treecast area from the bright, active, yelling, cheering, clapping sports courts and children’s playground beyond.
The park is symmetrically divided into four rectangular segments, more or less following the divisions of the original burial ground. It is named after the famous actor, comic performer and dancer, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) who was buried here, his grave sits enclosed with curlicued railings in the southeast segment. A pair of metal tragi- comedy masks hang at the foot. The comic mask grins up at the dappled sunshine turning leaves to gold; the tragi mask frowns down at the grave, choked with drooping plants and weeds. A string of (fake) pearls has been draped around the headstone, paper streamers wind through the ironwork. Grimaldi lived in this area for most of his life. He performed at Sadlers Wells Theatre and in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and is best known and celebrated for developing the role of the white faced clown, and is revered as forerunner of the modern circus clown.
In the far corner a pair of coffin- shaped bronze installations are set into the ground: an interactive musical artwork by Henry Krokatsis. One is dedicated to Grimaldi and the other to Charles Dibdin the Younger (composer and proprieter of Sadlers Wells theatre, who worked closely with Grimaldi. He was also buried in this churchyard). Stamping your feet on these produce clanging musical notes which, when in the right order will play the tunes of a couple of Grimaldi’s popular songs, written by Dibdin. I do a hesitant (and slightly self conscious) tap dance on the coffins and make some discordant clanks but my unmusical feet produce nothing close to a melody!
I set up to draw where I can just glimpse the Grimaldi grave through a gap in the wall. It’s a warm autumnal October morning but gusty bursts of breeze rattle the lime tree foliage and send scatters of contorted bronze amber leaves, maple, lime, plane across the grass. Cascades of virginia creeper drape the stone walls. Red as a passing bus, a traffic light. Or a clown’s nose.
The leaf strewn length of this segment erupts in grassy bulges. Like giant underground bubbles ready to burst out of the lawn. A father and young daughter run up and over the hummocks. Squeals from the little girl as they race back down. Buses, lorries, vans, cars growl as they start stop on the Pentonville Road. Bright coloured rectangles flickering left to right behind the trees.
A constant turnover of parties of schoolchildren arriving in clusters and crocodiles to do sports in the ball court and on the grass. A background canticle of screams and laughs and whoops with teachers’ shouts and whistles.
A crow cackles from the high top of a plane tree.
In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018. www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.
Joseph Grimaldi Park, Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9JE
Opening times: 8am – dusk
Google earth view here