Note: as of July 2018, The Clowns Gallery & Museum at Holy Trinity Church is closed due to health and safety of the church building.
Coulrophobics, look away now. There's a museum in London dedicated to clowns — and it's in a church.
"I used to be a clown doctor," says Mattie Faint, as if it's the most normal thing in the world. Given that we're surrounded by clowns, the concept of a clown doctor doesn't seem like an odd one, but Mattie explains that in his many years as a clown, he spent time working the wards of Great Ormond Street children's hospital, entertaining young patients.
His laughologist's toolkit bag sits on the top of a cabinet nearby.
We're at the Clown Gallery in Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, where Mattie is curator. He's giving us the grand tour — although 'grand' may be stretching it; the museum consists of an entrance hall, another small room, and, as we later discover, a basement room. It's not exactly warm down here, the stone walls doing little to keep the cold out.
But before we get on to examining the museum exhibits, Mattie wants to show us something in the main church; this stained glass window isn't your average depiction of a biblical scene:
It's a rendering of Joseph Grimaldi, the Clare Market-born entertainer best known for creating the modern clown character. The window was donated to the museum by Gerry Cottle, owner of WOW Circus and Wookey Hole caves in Somerset. Only 10% of the museum's collection is here in London, the rest was moved to Wookey a few years back. The split was cleverly executed — solo clown shoes line shelves in the museum, their pairs on display in Wookey.
It's not the last we hear of Grimaldi. Mattie's a bit of a fanatic, talking about him as though he were a friend, not someone who's been dead nearly 200 years. What we do learn is that Grimaldi's 'grave' in Joseph Grimaldi Park, which members of the public are encouraged to dance on, doesn't actually contain Grimaldi's body. The gravestone was moved when the park was redeveloped a few years ago, but the body remains in its original resting place nearby.
In the main museum, artworks line the walls — photos, drawings, cartoons, all featuring clowns in some comical pose. A whole display is dedicated to postage stamps from around the world depicting clowns. Most of them are based on real life clowns Mattie knows personally.
Asked about his favourite item, Mattie doesn't hesitate in leading us to a wall mounted glass case that we hadn't noticed — it's behind a heavy church door separating the two rooms. It contains the final suit of famous entertainer Coco the Clown, acquired by the museum at an auction. A red suit, complete with white gloves, pin badges and oversized shoes are all present and correct, but there's something else in the case: a West Ham United match ticket, dating back to 1983. It was found in the pocket of the suit several years after Coco's death — but he died in 1974, nine years before the date on the ticket.
If that doesn't sit too comfortably with you, try not to dwell too much on the fact that the ashes of clown Rob 'Smokey' Townsend are scattered in the church's garden. Mattie makes no secret of the fact that his will dictates the same be done for him when his time comes.
The museum is also home to the world's largest collection of clown eggs (no, we didn't realise that was a thing either).
But's it's in the basement that things get really interesting. We're led down an uncomfortably narrow, surprisingly modern spiral staircase to a dingy tunnel of a room which doubles up at Mattie's office. He comes here when he's feeling glum about things he hears in the news, because "you can't be sad for too long with all these faces smiling at you".
And faces there are. The perfect rows of framed clown prints are somehow more disconcerting than the erratic displays of clown memorabilia upstairs. Before we have time to dwell too much, Mattie's whirling around the room, pointing out clown costumes dating back as far as 1880. His own former costume sits as the end of the rack in a suit bag. Islington-based costumier Lindy Hemmings designed it for him before going on to work on films including instalments from the Batman and Harry Potter franchises.
Something on top of some filing cabinets catches our eye. It's a series of trophies and plaques. The museum cares for Clowns International's wealth of awards. Our favourite? The one awarded for "attacking, precision and timing". There's more to this clowning malarkey than we'd ever realised.
If you fancy visiting the museum yourself, it only opens one Friday a month. We reckon it may be one of London's quietest museums too, getting 10-15 visitors every time it opens. Some are locals, others are visitors to London. "We also get some of our regulars, clowns just popping by for a cup of tea," says Mattie.
If you have heard of the 'Clown Church', chances are that it's to do with the annual Clown Service, held on the first Sunday in February. The service is no longer held at Holy Trinity but at a larger sister church, All Saints Haggerston on Livermere Road, due to crowd sizes (on that note, if you're planning on attending one of these services, Mattie recommends getting there at least an hour before it starts to be in with a chance of getting in).
The Clown Gallery, Holy Trinity Dalston, Beechwood Road (museum entrance on Cumberland Close), E8 3DY. Open on the first Friday of every month, noon-5pm. Entry is free, although donations towards the upkeep of the museum are encouraged.