The Clown Egg Register is a physical record of over 250 clown faces, each painted onto an egg. The tradition was introduced during the 1940’s and allows clowns to copyright their make-up, preserving “an unwritten rule that a clown must never copy the face of another.”
A new publication The Clown Egg Register by photographer Luke Stephenson and artist Helen Chapion presents 169 of the faces and the stories of the people behind them. Published by Particular Books, The Clown Egg Register promises to offer “a glimpse into a dying art form that continues to delight and terrify children and adults everywhere.”
It’s Nice That caught up with Luke to find out more about the book, which can be pre-ordered here.
When did you first hear about the Clown Egg Register?
I first found out about the clown egg register quite by chance in 2007 while I was checking out a church hall for a shoot in Haggerston, east London. As I was leaving the vicar asked if I’d like to see the clown museum, which isn’t a offer you pass up. When I walked into the room I was greeted by a lovely cabinet full of eggs with clowns faces painted on them. I was instantly hooked – it was so strange that I just wanted to know more. I contacted the clown museum and eventually managed to arrange a time when I could visit and photograph the 40 or so eggs that were in the cabinet. I soon learned that the register was a ongoing thing and it was still growing. The eggs I first photographed are part of a small collection of eggs called the ‘dead famous’ collection which is made up of relatively famous dead clowns. After photographing these it took me eight years to revisit the project. I took a portrait of a Clown named Mattie for the FT magazine and I decided it would be great to document the entire collection for prosperity. It is now housed in Wookie Hole, Somerset, and contains around 250 eggs in all.
How did the concept for the book come about?
I met an agent who had seen my previous books and was very keen on the project. Je started to pitch the idea to various publishers and Particular Books really loved the idea. We have worked closely with Clowns International who own the register and they have been really helpful. They put us in touch with Helen Champion who was at the time studying fine art at Goldsmiths. She had a keen interest in clowning and had even gone though the process of becoming a clown and developing her make up – so she was the perfect person to help us build a picture of the lives of the clowns who were depicted on the eggs. I think this really helps to bring the pictures to life.
What were the challenges you faced when researching and shooting the eggs?
I was in charge of the photographs, I think I had a relatively easy job compared to Helen who had to do a lot of leg work to research the clowns lives to piece together all the obscure information.
For me it was simply a matter of speaking to a lot of clowns to arrange access, which was quite a strange experience in itself. When I finally gained access to the museum in Wookie Hole, I set up within the museum itself. Some of the eggs are very delicate, so we needed to limit moving them too much. Everything was fine until we started to notice the circus music being piped into the museum was on loop. We couldn’t work out how to stop it, so my assistant and I were slowly driven mad over two days by circus music. It very quickly stopped being fun.
Which clown eggs are your favourites?
There are so many to chose from. I have a strange relationship with the eggs as I have been looking at my pictures of them for quite a while. As a result, I have got to know them by sight, so I tend to lean toward the ones with interesting face paint and funny names as thats all the information I’ve had until recently. When Helen completed all the biographies, I started to learn more of their stories.
I really like Joseph Grimaldi. In the clown world he known as the father of modern clowning. He led quite a colourful life, as did another clown named Chocolat. There is even a film on his life which I discovered the other day. I haven’t yet watched it but i imagine its quite sad!
In terms of aesthetics of the eggs, I think its worth mentioning the different styles which come from the different ‘egg artists’. To date there has been four, and, of all of them, Kate Stone has been the most prolific. She paints very detailed life-like faces on the eggs and really adds a lot of character to them. So I’m a really big fan of all her eggs (which is a very odd-sounding sentence).
What next for the publication? How do you hope it is received?
Well it comes out on the 30th of March and will go out into the world which is always exciting. I hope it brings a smile to people’s faces. There’s has been a lot of negative press about clowns, especially recently, so it’s nice to show people these strange little artefacts that have a human story behind them. The story of someone who just wanted to make people happy.
Do you like clowns or are you scared of them?
I understand why you might be scared. The make up can be quite over the top and can really distort peoples features to the point where you wouldn’t recognise them without make up. It’s a little strange. That said, all the clowns I’ve met have been very nice.