Next time you hurry down Brook Street, take a moment to glance up at the blue plaques side by side at numbers 23 and 25. The homes of former flatmates Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel make up a permanent museum in Mayfair
Living two centuries and one wall apart, court composer George Frideric Handel and rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix were legends in their own time and remain so today. Handel, born in Germany in 1685, moved to London in 1714 and into 25 Brook Street at the age of 38. He remained there until his death in 1759. Hendrix, born in Seattle in 1942, came to the UK in 1966 to seek fame and fortune. By 1967 he had gained huge popularity with live performances at London clubs and hit records, including Hey Joe. Such was his success that he became the highest paid musician in the world.
In 1968 Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved into 23 Brook Street and lived there for about a year, with their flat providing an exotic and colourful backdrop to the many photoshoots that took place in their bedroom. For both Handel and Hendrix, Brook Street provided a vital central base for their artistic lives and a proved a magnet for contemporary fellow musicians and composers who visited, worked and played with them there.
In the 1990s, admirers of Handel set up the Handel House Trust to raise funds to purchase and restore the building that had been home to the great composer for more than 30 years. They used the upper floors of number 23 as offices. While Handel House opened to the public in 2001, the Trust gradually restored the upper floors in number 23 and in 2016 the Hendrix museum was opened. Both spaces are being gradually worked on; meanwhile they bustle with musical activity.
Today, Handel House is a pilgrimage spot for admirers of both musicians. The entrance to the museum is not on Brook Street itself, but tucked away at the back in Lancashire Court. The building is a traditional 18th-century London townhouse, built over five floors, with kitchens in the basement and servants’ rooms in the attic. The wood-panelled rooms of 25 Brook Street are part-museum and part-chamber concert venue.
Handel’s bedroom and dressing room on the second floor were where he could retreat from the world and the pressure of his life as the most famous musician of his day. Here he recovered from two strokes and, if the rumours are true, retreated to gobble all the best items from the dinners he offered to his guests.
The rooms are furnished as they might have been in Handel’s time, with an elegant short four-poster and storage chests for his clothes and wigs. The first floor, however, is the nerve centre of the museum today. You enter through the rather curious Costume Room where you can dress up as Handel – or Hendrix if you prefer – and take photos. Then you enter the great man’s Composition Room, where some of the most famous operas and oratorios were written (Handel wrote his Messiah there in just over three weeks).
Prolific even by the standards of his age, Handel was to complete about 50 operas, 30 oratorios and several organ compositions, producing his first opera at the tender age of 20. Many of these were created in this fairly small windowless room in bustling Mayfair. The Music Room, where Handel and his friends and pupils gathered to play and rehearse, is today, as then, a place of musical adventure. Regular concerts of Baroque and new music are held here. The space in the Music Room and the companion Parlour, where concerts also take place, is tiny. Performers and musicians are right on top of each other, giving an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to match elsewhere in London.
The Handel Trust is busy helping spread the music of Handel and his contemporaries, with outreach programmes for children and young adults. They also run an excellent year-long programme for young professional musicians called Handel House Talent, choosing a number of performers who specialise in Baroque music. The musicians perform for audiences in Handel House, at St George’s Hanover Square – where Handel worshipped – and elsewhere.
Currently on the scheme is soprano Emily Owen. “I’ve had the chance to perform varied evening recitals and do a masterclass with my idol, Carolyn Sampson,” she says. “The community at the house and knowledgeable and enthusiastic audiences have given me the confidence to create ambitious and unusual recital programmes.”
Owen was also commissioned to create a promenade operatic experience in the house with her own ensemble, Ceruleo – her first bid at directing and creating a new piece of drama. She continues: “You can absolutely feel Handel’s presence in the house, which is one of the most exciting parts of being on the scheme. The closeness of the audience allows performers to use the full range of their contrasts and dynamics, which you might not be able to do in a huge concert hall. I’ve felt really free to experiment and invite the audience to join me in my research and discovery of Handel’s work.” Meanwhile, beyond the wall, would-be Hendrixes compete to riff like their guitarist hero.
When Jimi Hendrix discovered that Handel had lived next door, he rushed to the local record shop and bought himself recordings of Messiah and the Water Music, which he added to his collection of LPs, some of which are still in his former flat.
There’s an exhibition room with photographs and memorabilia from Hendrix’s short yet immensely colourful life, but the main attraction is the room where he lived, slept and held court for his friends and fellow musicians. It’s a scruffy, young man’s room, with knotted and fringed fabrics and rugs in glowing colours. There’s a black and white TV, an overflowing ashtray, a whisky decanter and empty bottles of Mateus Rosé, the only wine regularly available in the benighted days of 1960s London.
Hendrix was a night owl, playing sets at Soho clubs in the evenings, partying until the not-too-small hours and then sleeping well into the afternoons. This was a man of huge talent who, like many gifted musicians of his era, lived hard and died tragically young – aged 27 – of an accidental drug overdose.