An egg, it turns out, is not just the best thing to put on top of almost any dish. For starters, artists have been using eggs as a canvas for centuries; the International Egg Art Guild showcases some fine examples of “eggery,” from delicate laser-cut eggshells to traditional Ukranian wax-resist methods. The photo galleries from its annual Masters of Egg Art competition are well worth a browse.

But using eggs to copyright clown make-up? That was new to me when I read about it on Atlas Obscura last week.

Clown Egg Registry 2 Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

In the article, associate editor Ella Morton describes the Clown Egg Register, as documented by photographer Luke Stephenson. Each of the few hundred eggs in the collection serves as “a copyright register for a clown’s personal make-up design,” the Register’s curator, clown Matthew Faint, told the Financial Times in 2011. (Faint’s own egg boasts an elongated black-edged white outline around the lips and eyes, red cheeks and lips, and a flower-bedecked bowler hat.)

The Register started as a hobby: Stan Bult, a circus enthusiast who founded the International Circus Clowns Society in 1946, painted portraits of his founding members on blown eggshells for fun. Bult died in 1966, and, according to Morton, many of his initial egg portraits have since been crushed. But, when the Society reformed as Clowns International in 1978, the egg tradition was revived.

Clown Egg Registry 1 Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

Today, writes Morton:

A designated “egg artist”—currently Debbie Smith—paints a pottery egg for each clown who registers. Unlike the Bult-era eggs, which focused solely on faces, today’s eggs also incorporate elements of each performer’s costume. The clowns help the egg creation process by sending fabric swatches and photos of their made-up faces.

Clown Egg Registry three across Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photographs by Luke Stephenson.

Part of the Clown Egg Register, including the twenty-four eggs that remain of Bult’s oeuvre, is on display at Wookey Hole Caves, in Somerset. You can read the Atlas Obscura article in full here, and see more of the collection in Luke Stephenson’s short animation, below. Stephenson is currently working on a book about the Register, including the biographies of the men and women behind the make-up.