One single word that strikes fear into the heart of people of all ages. But not all clowns are created equal. Way back in the early 16th Century, the Italians devised the Commedia dell’arte, which literally translates to “Comedy of Art” but in practice means “Comedy of the Professional.” These artistes were masters of the unwritten and improvised, the “Commedia” of their title referring not to the subject matter but instead to the way in which they performed. No dialogue was written down and memorized, although performance matter was discussed and choreographed in terms of characters, plot, and pace. Actors organized in groups of ten, called a company, with each performer specializing in a specific character or type of acting: the swashbuckling pirate, simpleton love-stricken swain, or the now-dreaded clown.
Troupes soon spread across Europe, and the style worked its way to England via France in the late 17th Century, likely with the return of Charles II, the Merrie Monarch. According to information posted at the Victoria & Albert Museum, stock characters like Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown developed into the English Harlequinade, while Pulcinella, developed into Mr Punch.
And added bonus to my research this week was the discovery of why Harley Quinn carries a bat as her weapon of choice: historical harlequins armed themselves with a “magic sword” called a “slapstick.” The more you know.
Trigger warning: the following images contain clowns. I’ll save the absolute creepiest for last (although Cruikshank’s subject is holding what looks like a knife, and he’s second in my exhibition).
Harlequino (1670) by Maurice Sand, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Mr. Grimaldi as a Clown in Harlequin & Friar Bacon by George Cruikshank ca. 1779, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Triumph of Harlequin by Felicita Tibaldi and Pierre Subleyras ca. 1750, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Harlequin and Columbine by Derby Porcelain Manufactory ca. 1755-1760, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Harlequin ca. 18th Century, artist unknown, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Mr G. French as Harlequin published by J. Redington ca. early 19th Century, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Mr (Melbourn) Eller as Harlequin, artist unknown, published 17 February 1829, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Harlequin Buff Melbourn Mellar in Harlequin & the Swan, artist unknown, ca. early 19th Century, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Harlequin & Mother Goose sheet music by W. Ware, 29 December 1806, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Harlequin Mother Goose illustrations by William West ca. 1811 and performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Lithographed key to “The Principal Objects in the Moving Diorama of the Plymouth Breakfwater in Harlequin and the Flying Chest by William Clarkson Stanfield (theatre design), Charles Hullmandel (printer), and W.S. Reynolds (artist) ca. 1823, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Winding up to a pitch the Automaton Scaramouch, -.or,- Harlequin Courier’s Delight attributed to Theodore Lane, published by George Humphrey 17 February 1821, National Portrait Gallery.
Blowing up the Pic Nic’s; – or – Harlequin Quixotte attacking the Puppets by James Gillray, publishing by Hannah Humphrey 2 April 1802, National Portrait Gallery.
And the pièce de ré·sis·tance:
Arlequin (Pantin) from Imagerie Pellerin. This one is so disturbing I couldn’t even find an artist or museum collection to claim it.