Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.
There could not be a more musically contrasting pair than George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, yet, there is so much that ties the two together. Situated in Mayfair, London are the former homes of these two world famous musicians. Now a museum, numbers 25 and 23 Brook Street were once inhabited by people who brought new tastes in music to the British capital. Handel & Hendrix in London (previously Handel House Museum) contains a set of restored rooms in both buildings that reveal the contrasting ways in which both Handel and Hendrix lived.
The museum was opened in 2001 by the Handel House Trust after the careful restoration of the rooms in 25 Brook Street to their original Georgian decor. A room in the house next door was used as an exhibition space, however, in 2016, the museum took the plunge and expanded to incorporate the reconstructed upper floors of 23 Brook Street, Jimi Hendrix’s home. Despite being an unlikely pairing, the museum has been a great success with thousands of fans and visitors attending every year.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) moved into 25 Brook Street shortly after it was built in 1723 at the age of 38. Born in Germany, he had already been living in London for thirteen years, however, this was the first home he could call his own, although, he only leased it because foreigners could not buy property at that time. (For more information about Handel’s life, click here.) For Handel, his new home was in a perfect location due to its closeness to the theatres where his musical works were being performed. It was also close to the newly built church, St George’s Hanover Square, which Handel regularly attended after it opened the following year.
Entering the Georgian house from the rear, visitors come across the ticket desk in what would have once been the basement of the house. This area has not been reconstructed for the museum but would have once held the kitchen. The ground floor, now owned by the luxury leather goods shop, Aspinal of London, was where Handel once sold copies of his music and tickets for his concerts. The very top of the house contained a garret in which the servants had their quarters, leaving the floors in between for Handel’s personal use.
The museum has expanded the buildings in order to create exhibition space, so the first room visitors see that actually belonged to Handel was his Composition Room on the first floor. Within these walls, as the name of the room implies, is where Handel composed his music. He spent an astonishing amount of time in here, rapidly writing an entire opera in 40 days, then promptly starting on another one. His quickest creation, which no doubt was composed in this room, was Messiah, one of the most inspiring oratorios in the world. Within a mere 24 days, Handel had composed the music that made up this phenomenal composition, culminating in 53 pieces of music that last approximately two hours and 40 minutes.
The room next door at the front of the house was Handel’s Music Room. Containing a harpsichord, this was naturally where Handel rehearsed his compositions with various musicians and singers. It was officially a dining room, so may also have contained a table where he would entertain his friends and patrons over various culinary delights. He would also hold small performances of his new music before they opened to the public at the theatres nearby.
On the second floor are the two most private rooms in the building. One was Handel’s Dressing Room, which, when the house was built, was intended as a second bedroom. Having no family of his own, Handel was able to use this room to store his clothing and powdered wigs. His manservant, Peter le Blond, would have helped Handel dress in the typical Georgian fashions, a combination of a shirt, cravat, waistcoat, tailcoat and breeches.
Finally, the front room on the second floor reveals where Handel would have slept. This was both used as his bedroom and bathroom since Georgian houses did not contain indoor plumbing. A jug of water and a basin would have sat on a dresser from which to wash in and a stool designed to contain a chamber pot was also close at hand.
It is presumed this room was where Handel died on 14th April 1759, however, the bed is a reproduction of a typical 1720s four-poster bed. The length of the bed is noticeably shorter than those of today. This is because it was recommended that people slept sitting up in order to aid digestion. Being a big lover of food, it is likely Handel slept upright on doctor’s orders. The other furniture in this room, for instance, the dressing table and mirror, whilst not Handel’s, are genuine objects from the 1700s.
The third floor of Handel’s house has been converted into an exhibition space for his musical neighbour, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). With a brief history of the rock guitarist and an insight into his life in London, the exhibition prepares visitors to step from the Georgian building into a completely different world.
Only two rooms of 23 Brook Street have been reconstructed for the museum: the bedroom and the Record Room (originally a storeroom). In July 1968 when Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved in, the house had been split into several apartments. Hendrix’s began on the third floor and contained a bathroom on the level above. Whilst small, this was the first place Hendrix could call his own, similarly to Handel 200 years earlier.
Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942 where he discovered his talent for music, picking up the guitar at age 15. After a brief stint as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, the talented guitarist, now known as Jimi, began touring as a backing band with various performers, including the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. It was not until he moved to England that he really made a name for himself. With Chas Chandler, the bassist of the Animals as his manager, Jimi quickly earned himself three UK top hits: Hey Joe, Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary.
Hendrix liked to entertain his friends in his personal flat, also using it as a base to give interviews and pose for photo shoots. It is many of these photographs that helped the museum curators recreate the colourful bedroom Hendrix spent most of his time in. Many of the original furnishings had been removed when Hendrix and Etchingham split up in 1969, the rest being removed after Hendrix’s death in 1970 from asphyxia as a result of drug consumption. Fortunately, the photographs and Etchingham’s memories were sufficient enough to reconstruct his 1960s-style home.
The majority of the items in Hendrix’s bedroom are replicas recreated using the photographs and knowledge of the typical styles of the 1960s. This may come as a disappointment to some fans, however, there is an oval mirror on the wall, which did belong to Hendrix and hangs in the exact same place where he would stare into it often. Although it may not look like much, this was one of Hendrix’s favourite possessions. The only reason it has survived is that Etchingham stole it after their break up.
The photoshoots revealed that Hendrix was fond of batik wall hangings and Persian rugs. It is said that he owned more than he had space for, therefore, frequently swapped them around. The museum displays three examples of the type of rugs he was passionate about on the bedroom floor and a silk hanging, replicating the one Hendrix owned, hangs on the wall above the bed.
Photographs of Hendrix’s vibrant bedspread were taken to the textile specialist Wallace Sewell (founded in 1992) who painstakingly wove an identical spread specifically for the museum. The Dog Bear that sits on a chair to one side of the room was recreated by Judy Roose, a volunteer at the museum, however, the original was made and given to Hendrix by a fan.
The furniture, including Hendrix’s iconic chair, are all typical of the 1960s and match those that featured in various photo shoots. Visitors are welcome to sit in the chair and strike one of Hendrix’s many poses.
To make the room feel more authentic, as though Jimi Hendrix has just left and will return soon, a model of his guitar lies on the bed and a photocopy of handwritten lyrics rest on the bedside table.
The back bedroom, which Hendrix used as a storeroom, has not been restored with its 1960s decor. This is most probably due to the lack of photographs and the fact that everything in it was in storage, therefore, not much to look at. Instead, this room has been retitled the Record Room, displaying a number of LP sleeves that Hendrix once owned. Although he was famous for Rock and Roll, Hendrix listened to a wide range of genres. He owned over 100 titles and was particularly inspired by electric blues.
Many of the records in Hendrix’s collection were purchased at the One Stop Record Shop in South Molton Street, of which he was a frequent customer. Most interestingly, amongst his set were a number of classical pieces, including Water Music and two versions of Messiah, thus linking him to the former occupant of the house next door.
When not in use, Hendrix kept his guitars in the storeroom. On display is Hendrix’s second-hand Epiphone FT79, which he bought in New York for $25. He brought it with him to the UK and used it to compose new songs and arrangements. Hendrix always used this guitar first, perfecting the notes, before transferring to an electric guitar.
In comparison to Hendrix’s lavishly decorated bedroom, Handel’s house comes across as bland and unexciting. Since Handel assembled a large collection of art throughout his life, the walls of his house were most likely a monotonous grey, allowing the paintings to stand out for themselves. Handel’s House is almost as much an art gallery as it is a museum, with several paintings and etchings of Handel, his contemporaries and other connections to his life. These would not have been owned by Handel but they look at home here in the house of “the most excellent Musician any Age ever produced.”
Hanging on the wall in the Composition Room is a large portrait of Handel painted by Thomas Hudson (1701-79). Whilst the painting is a splendid work of art, it is the ornate frame that entices the viewer. This sumptuous frame features sculpted bulrushes, a plant associated with the Biblical prophet Moses who’s mother used bulrushes to hide him from the Egyptian Pharoah. The significance of this frame is to highlight Handel’s involvement with the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, of which he was elected as governor. He also donated Messiah to the hospital to use for benefit concerts, bequeathing it to them in his will so that the concerts could continue annually after his death, which they did until 1775.
A couple more portraits of Handel can be found throughout the house including a copy of the composer in informal attire by Philip Mercier (1689-1760). Here, Handel poses next to a harpsichord, pen in hand with the latest music he is composing in front of him. The original painting can be seen at Handel House in Halle, Germany.
Other depictions include a bust showing Handel as a middle-aged, balding man, which was once owned by King George III who boasted that Handel was his favourite composer; and a caricature, The Charming Brute (1754), depicting Handel as a pig playing the organ whilst surrounded by food. It is believed that Handel was a gluttonous man who liked to eat an abundance of rich and expensive delicacies, which was evidenced by his protruding stomach.
Several well-known faces from the 18th century are also hanging on the walls of Handel’s house including Louis-François Roubiliac (1695-1762) who sculpted a statue of Handel that can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Thomas Arne (1710-78), the composer of Rule Britannia. Other images show the buildings of Georgian London that Handel frequented and a watercolour drawing of 25 Brook Street by John Buckler (1770-1851) records what Handel’s house looked like in 1839 before the top floor was transformed from a garret into a full-height attic.
Since the two musicians are so contrasting in style and personality, it is difficult to compare the two sides of the museum. Whilst Hendrix’s flat is more aesthetically involved, the history on Handel’s side is much more impressive. It is likely that visitors come with the intent of seeing the home of one past inhabitant but enjoy discovering the other as well.
Often, musicians and singers can be found in the Music Room rehearsing for various performances. Visitors are welcome to sit and listen to them if they wish. At other times, the museum puts on concerts for which tickets can be bought in advance.
Handel and Hendrix in London is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am until 6pm. For £10 (£5 for children), visitors have access to both Handel’s house and Hendrix’s flat. With a lift to each floor, the building is fully accessible for disabled visitors. For more details, see https://handelhendrix.org.