Wednesday 4 November 2009

Grimaldi 2: The Blues

What drew me to the Memoirs of Grimaldi was the discovery that he was at one time in his life passionately keen on butterflies - specifically, Dartford Blues. These are the most beautiful of all the blues, the ones we now call Adonis blues. Here's Grimaldi - a man who seems to have had the same phenomenal physical energy as Dickens himself - in June 1794:

'Being engaged nightly at Sadler's Wells, he was obliged to wait till he had finished his business upon the stage: then he returned home, had supper, and shortly after midnight started off to walk to Dartford, 15 miles from town. Here he arrived about five o'clock in the morning, and calling upon a friend of the name of Brooks, who lived in the neighbourhood, and who was already stirring, he rested, breakfasted, and sallied forth into the fields. His search was not very profitable, however, for after some hours he had only succeeded in bagging , or bottling, one Dartford Blue, with which he returned to his friend perfectly satisfied. At one o'clock he bade his friend good by, walked back to town, reached London by five, washed, took tea, and hurried to Sadler's Wells... On the same night, directly the pantomime was over, and supper over too, off he walked down to Dartford again, found the friend up again, took a hasty breakfast again, and resumed his search again. Meeting with better sport, and capturing no fewer than four dozen Dartford Blues, he hurried back to his friend's; set them... started off with the Dartford Blues in his pocket for London once more, reached home by four o'clock in the afternoon, washed, and took a hasty meal, then went to the theatre for the evening's performance.'

Incredibly, he was off to Dartford again that same night, and again on Sunday, when he had a whole day chasing the Dartford Blues, and was back in London in time for a 12 o'clock Monday morning rehearsal at Drury Lane.

It's sad, reading these exploits, to realise how many of the creatures he loved he must have killed - his collection was said to number some 4,000 butterflies - but such wholesale slaughter was commonplace, even into the 20th century. Victorian collectors thought nothing of taking out entire colonies, even of such rarities as the Large Blue and Large Copper - careless alike of the single life and of the type, it seems. On the other hand, there's no mistaking Grimaldi's consuming passion for the Dartford Blue, and it seems not to have been purely a hunter's passion; he appreciated their beauty enough to try to recapture it in watercolour. In old age, he took a particular pleasure in recalling the places where he had chased them, and the summer days devoted to the pursuit. The active side of it all ended, though, when his house in Pentonville was burgled by a gang who, smashing into the closet that housed his collection and seeing no value in it, destroyed everything but one small box and some items of collecting kit - which Grimaldi gave away the next day to an acquaintance. He never again took up his net.

1 comment:

  1. These memoirs sound a real find. I think I may be beginning to see the thing with butterflies, an oasis of calm, repose and sanity in a world that often tries to pull one in three directions at once. And yes, amazing energy though he was only 16-17 at the time, I think. The last few years of his life sound pretty sad, though. He had a tough time.