The fascinating reason why clowns paint their faces on eggs


Inside a church in east London, a clown called Mattie Faint is clutching a very special kind of egg. Daubed onto its surface is a studiously rendered, if somewhat rudimentary, portrait of a clown’s face. It’s one of many ceramic eggs that Faint keeps safe – they are vitally important to their owners.

Faint is the curator of the Clowns’ Gallery, a museum based at Trinity Church in London’s East End, that is popularly known as the “Clowns’ Church”. A stained glass window memorialises Joseph Grimaldi, not a saint but the patron of British clowning. The remains of at least one clown have been scattered in the courtyard. Several rooms at the rear of the church hold a rich array of artefacts, including costumes, props and other circus ephemera.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Faint’s collection, though, are the eggs. Each one is different, and represents the unique face design of its subject. Eggs like these are kept in only a handful of collections around the world, representing a kind of informal copyright – and much more.

This egg-based system of registering clowns’ makeup designs operates outside the courts and is not enforced by lawyers, which makes the practice particularly interesting to legal scholars like us. We’re interested in how artists think about originality, borrowing, and copying. Our prior research has looked at similar forms of emergent property norms: the distinctive pseudonyms of roller derby athletes, and the unwritten rules of copying, inspiration, and ownership in the tattoo industry. Other researchers have investigated the intellectual property in the worlds of stand-up comedy, graffiti, drag performance, and French cuisine, among others.

So, why do clowns value unique makeup designs? How does their egg-based system work? And of all the possible options, why did clowns choose this idiosyncratic method of memorialising their identities?

Legal tools

Though fascinating in its own right, the study of informal intellectual property is more than a matter of idle curiosity. The legal regulation of creativity plays an increasingly important role in our daily lives. At the core of copyright, patent, and related bodies of law is a belief in incentives. By giving creators legal tools to control how their works are used, the hope is that they will be encouraged to produce more art, safe in the knowledge that they can profit from it.

But people who create do so in response to a host of incentives, only a small fraction of which copyright and related laws address directly. Some create out of love of their art, or to express themselves. While others seek the respect and acceptance of other creators. Formal legal incentives fail to account for these other powerful motivations.

So when a group of artists such as clowns decide to bypass legal tools by opting for self-regulation instead, it suggests that formal intellectual property systems do not address the needs of all creative communities in memorialising and protecting their work.

That’s how we ended up at Trinity Church to meet Faint and see the collection of eggs held there.

Faint enthusiastically welcomes us with a cup of tea and a detailed tour of the art, photos, costumes and other memorabilia that populate the museum. Faint is a member of the professional club Clowns International, and has been a clown for 46 years. He’s even met the Queen – twice – through his work.

In a three-hour conversation, Faint treats us to a crash course in the essentials of clowning and the history of clown eggs. The earliest egg registry dates to 1946, when Stan Bult – a chemist by trade, though not a clown himself – began painting the faces of prominent circus clowns on eggs as a hobby. Eventually, the practice grew into what one contemporary publication called “a file of faces so that clowns can avoid copying one another”.

Bult painted eggs paying homage to prominent clowns until his death in 1966. At that time, Bult had created about 200 eggs, though Faint tells us that Clowns International only has about 40 of those original eggs in its collection. The fate of the rest is unclear. The most popular theory is that they were lent out to a private collection in the mid-1960s and mostly discarded or destroyed.

In 1987, though, Faint and other leaders of Clowns International revived the practice of egg painting. Since then, three different artists – Janet Webb, Kate Stone, and Debbie Smith – have painted eggs to memorialise members of Clowns International. The bulk of that collection, which now includes more than 200 eggs, is on display at a British tourist attraction called Wookey Hole in Somerset, which also features charmingly garish caves, mini-golf, a model village and other family entertainment. But more eggs and replicas are housed at Trinity Church.

The eggs confer prestige and a sense of gravity upon those who take the art of clowning seriously
But Faint says he did not revive and continue the egg tradition due to a pressing need to establish extralegal property rights. While there’s consensus among clowns about the importance of not copying one another, Faint does not regard a formal property system as necessary to enforce this norm. Clowns themselves do much of this work within their own community. For instance, Faint himself often provides feedback on makeup designs of early-career clowns, including steering them away from looks that are too similar to pre-existing performers.

Faint also told us that copying another clown’s look is less of a problem than one might think. Clowns prefer to have unique looks to distinguish themselves, and even if one did try to copy another’s makeup, the differences in facial structure would likely still render the two clowns reasonably distinct.

He instead prefers to cast the registry as a way of memorialising the Clowns International membership, as conferring prestige and a sense of gravity upon those who take the art of clowning seriously. It may not mean “I can sue you”, he explained, but still represents a “recording for posterity”.

Painter skill

Our next stop was Folkestone, a seaside town near the white cliffs of Dover, where Debbie Smith paints the clown eggs that end up in the Wookey Hole collection. Smith became the egg artist for Clowns International in 2010, when she won a competition for the position.

While being the Clowns International egg artist is an honour, it will never make her wealthy. Though each egg takes her several days of painstaking work to complete, she is paid a mere £15 ($20) for each one.

About the author

Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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