The house in London’s Mayfair where George Frideric Handel lived for 36 years and composed his greatest works is open to the public in its entirety for the first time.
The German-born composer lived at 25 Brook Street from 1723, when it was newly built, until his death in 1759, aged 74. Among the works he wrote and rehearsed there were his 1741 oratorio Messiah and his anthem Zadok the Priest, which has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch since George II, for whom he wrote it.
When Handel took the lease, Mayfair was being developed as a fashionable district and lay at the edge of London, close to fields and orchards. It was also within easy walking distance of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, where Handel’s operas were performed, and St James’ Palace, where he was Composer of Music for the Chapel Royal.
His visitors at Brook Street included musicians and aristocratic patrons. In January 1736, he “play’d over” his new work Alexander’s Feast there for the Earl of Shaftesbury, who wrote that “Handel was in high spirits & I think never play’d and sung so well.”
Claire Davies, curator at the house, said other regular visitors included the composer’s close friends Anne Donnellan and Mary Delany. “They talk [in correspondence] about suppers in the evening, and they were particularly interested in the music side of it. We also have accounts of similar parties of their houses, just around the corner. So it was very much a little community of Handel’s.”
Handel spent much of his time in his first-floor composing room and the adjoining reception room where he hosted rehearsals and performances. In April 1749, the newspaper Old England reported: “The Musick compos’d by Mr Handel for the Fireworks in the Green Park, was rehears’d at his House in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square. The Band consists of upwards of 100 Trumpets, Bassoons, Hautboys, French Horns, Kettle Drums, and other Instruments.”
In fact, Davies said there was no way so many performers could have rehearsed in the space, but it certainly got very busy and must have been quite a spectacle.
Handel’s house is part of a museum that includes Jimi Hendrix’s former flat next door. In 1968, by an extraordinary coincidence, the American guitarist, singer and songwriter moved into No. 23, which his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham had rented. For several months he used the top-floor flat as his base, giving interviews there, writing songs, and preparing for his February concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
According to the museum’s specialists, Brook Street was Hendrix’s “doorstep to the London music scene of the late ’60s”. His flat was a short stroll from famous venues such as the Marquee, the Speakeasy and The Scotch of St James and he would spend many evenings wandering from club to club looking for a chance to play
Hendrix and Etchingham decorated the flat to their own taste, including buying curtains and cushions from the nearby John Lewis department store and various ornaments and knickknacks from Portobello Road market. He told her this was “my first real home of my own”.
He was aware of the connection to Handel, although he mistakenly believed he was living in Handel’s former home, rather than next door to it. After learning of the link, he went with Etchingham to the One Stop Record Shop in South Molton Street and bought records including Handel’s Messiah and Water Music.
Parts of Handel’s house have been open to visitors for over 20 years — since its acquisition by the Handel House Trust. Hendrix’s former flat was opened to the public in 2016. However, the recent £3 million upgrade greatly increases access. For the first time, visitors can walk into Handel’s house through the front door, rather than a back entrance. They can tour the whole of the house, including the previously inaccessible basement kitchen and ground floor rooms, which have been restored to their 1740s condition.
The ground-floor front parlour was especially important as Handel’s “shop front” where subscribers to his music — who, in 1744, paid eight guineas for box tickets to 24 performances in the season — could collect their tickets. While Handel received friends and important guests in person, the everyday business was mostly handled by his assistant John Christopher Smith, who lived nearby.
The recent restoration, and a refurbishment of the previously public areas, draws on an inventory made of the house’s contents three months after Handel’s death. Davies said: “That includes the entire kitchen contents. We don’t know so much about the other floors. But we know, for example, that in the ground-floor parlour there were gilt mirrors with wall sconces. One is called a window glass so we know that would have sat between the two windows. And the other is called chimney glass and we know where that would have been too. So there are little details like that, which you can pick up on and make sure you get right.”
The restorers were also able to scrape back around 28 paint layers on the surviving original wood panels to reveal the original blue.
A second document that greatly helped the team was the 1760 catalogue for the posthumous auction of Handel’s extensive art collection, which included more than 80 paintings by artists such as Poussin, van Ruysdael, Hondius and Teniers. Although the whereabouts of Handel’s paintings cannot be traced with certainty, the house is now hung with recently acquired works by the same artists and on the same themes.
New displays throughout the house explain the context and trajectory of Handel’s musical career. As for his interests outside of music, food always loomed large. Davies said: “Handel is depicted in several portraits throughout his lifetime. And you can see his waistline getting steadily wider. There are lots of accounts of his friends saying things like, ‘Oh gosh, I fear for his health, because he’s indulging in so many of the things he ought not to’. So it was clearly a very important thing for him.
“His kitchen tells us this too, because the things he had there suggest that really quite fine cookery was happening — probably not something you would expect in a house this small. We also know he must have been entertaining a lot of people over time. There are something like 26 plates. God knows where he was seating them all.”
In fact, she said it’s likely that food was often consumed rather informally. “It was the type of setting where you didn’t sit for supper and then have entertainment afterwards — there seems to have been a fluidity between those two things. There was a table in the corner where people were helping themselves to refreshments while people were taking turns to perform. We’ve tried to recreate that upstairs.”
Those “refreshments” would have included plenty of drink. Davies said: “In one of his [musical] scores, he clearly stops to write down that he needs to order 12 gallons of port. There are also quite a few tankard marks on his scores.”
As for his other extra-musical activities, Davies said: “If only we have some conclusive evidence, we could talk a bit more about relationships and things like that. There was some gossip from the court of Hanover, where he potentially had an affair with an older Italian opera singer [Vittoria Tarquini]. That is the only thing ever indicated in any of the documents so far.”
Nonetheless, Handel didn’t live alone. Davies said he normally had two female servants and one manservant. Records suggest that, as he became older, frailer and blind, his manservant slept in the room next to Handel’s to be on hand as needed.
It isn’t only Handel’s house that has had an overhaul. Changes at Hendrix’s flat include access to the original staircase, where the Beatle George Harrison once had to step over another guest who had passed out. It was much easier for the trust to restore Hendrix’s flat as it was the location for a number of famous photoshoots. Their recreation is so detailed that the ashtrays are filled with the correct brand of cigarette butts, Benson & Hedges.
Davies said there are important parallels between Handel and Hendrix that are explored in the museum’s new visitor displays. “One is that they were both so interested in other people’s music, and building on it as a foundation for something different. Also, they both came to London from elsewhere, and London turned out to be the missing factor they needed in their careers. Likewise, for London they were like missing key players who helped put the city on the map.”
Handel Hendrix House reopens this week. A programme of live music in Handel’s house and Hendrix’s flat will allow visitors to experience the properties as guests of the two musicians did. Other events will include talks, masterclasses, cookery demonstrations in Handel’s kitchen and late openings with drinks and DJ sets.
The team hope the changes will put the museum into the public consciousness. Davies said: “I used to joke that it was London’s best kept secret, not least because we used to our entrance at the back so people would walk past us. The new signs and restored facade will make a huge difference. People already stop in their tracks. ‘What does that mean? Oh my gosh, this is where Handel and Jimi Hendrix lived.’ So I’m feeling confident.”
The top image shows an 18th-century portrait of Handel being carried upstairs for hanging at his former home at 25 Brook Street. Photo: Christopher Ison