Handel & Hendrix in London

If you look up as you walk down Brook Street in Mayfair, you might notice a blue plaque on the front of number 23. This isn’t altogether unusual; there are over 950 blue plaques in London, put up by English Heritage to commemorate notable people and the buildings where they lived and worked. But what you might not expect to see is a second plaque immediately afterwards, at number 25.

George Frideric Handel’s Blue Plaque at 25 Brook Street.
Jimi Hendrix’s Blue Plaque at 23 Brook Street.

These plaques commemorate two musicians, born more than 250 years and 5,000 miles apart, who both made Brook Street their home. First came composer George Frideric Handel, who moved into 25 Brook Street when it was newly built in 1723 and lived there until his death in the house 36 years later. Then, over 200 years after Handel’s death, the upstairs flat of number 23 would briefly become home to Rock legend Jimi Hendrix.

The museum originally opened in 2000 as the Handel House Museum, before it was expanded in 2016 to include 23 Brook Street and reopened as Handel & Hendrix in London. You enter round the back of the building, below street level and make your way up to the first floor. This is Handel territory, and handwritten scores of his major works are displayed while performances of the pieces are played on a gilt-framed TV screen. Though very few of the exhibits are original, great care has been taken to recreate the house how it was. 18 layers of paint were stripped back until the original layer was found, and the walls have been repainted to match the grey that Handel would have known.

There are harpsichords everywhere. Harpsichords are precursors to the modern piano, but have a mechanism which plucks the strings, giving it a twangy tone, unlike a piano where the strings are hit with a hammer. In the four rooms on the first floor alone there are three harpsichords and a small house organ. The instruments are ornate, and the keys on each one are slightly different. The black keys on the first harpsichord have a white line down the middle, a feature imaginatively known as ‘skunk-tail’ keys. The colours of the keys of the house organ were reversed, with white sharps and flats, and black natural notes. One of the harpsichords also had decorative semicircles cut out of the base of the keys, for a reason I never got to the bottom of. Later, as I was leaving the museum, I was lucky enough to see and hear one of the harpsichords being tuned.

One of the many harpsichords.

My favourite anecdote learned on my visit so far involves Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum, and a muffin. Sloane travelled the world and often noted down any music he heard on his travels. He invited Handel to read over some sheet music which he had transcribed in Jamaica. The apparently unique manuscript was ruined when Handel put a buttery English muffin down on it. Whether this was careless, malicious, or absent minded, Handel’s appreciation for a hot buttered muffin makes me warm to him.

Handel’s not-quite-four-poster bed.

On the next floor up, we continue the Handel tourism with a nose around his bedroom. The bed is given the illusion of being a four-poster by the ‘tester’ – effectively an awning with curtains attached which hangs on hooks from the ceiling. Watching over the bedroom is a bust of Handel, which was made by creating a ‘life-mask’. This process effectively involved slathering his face in plaster to get a perfect cast of his features. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t look particularly amused.

Handel’s rather disappointed looking life-mask.

Heading upstairs again, you leave the 18th century behind and are pulled into the riot and colour of the 1960s. You enter the Hendrix flat through a passage between the upper floors of the two houses and emerge into what is less a traditional house museum and more a modern exhibition space. There are videos of performances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience alongside photographs taken during Hendrix’s time at the flat and standing front and centre is the first guitar he ever played on British soil. The guitar, which is still strung with the strings played by Hendrix, was owned by bandleader Zoot Money, and Hendrix played it briefly on the day he arrived in London while his manager tracked down a more appropriate instrument for his first UK gig later that evening.

The first guitar that Hendrix played in the UK.

We also get a glimpse into how inventive Hendrix was with his music. In a case in the far back corner of the room is a modern version of the Octavia Pedal. Hendrix worked alongside Roger Mayer, an electrical engineer, to develop this mechanism which pitches a guitar up an octave, mixes this sound with the original notes played and then fuzzes it. The effect of the Octavia can be heard during the guitar solos in Purple Haze.

And then we come to one of my favourite things about the whole museum: some stairs. In the corridor between the two exhibition rooms, there is a staircase starting at about shoulder height and then ending four steps later, at the ceiling. This is the original staircase, and it would have run directly between the two rooms, but was removed to allow step-free access between the two parts of the flat. I always enjoy it when historic houses point out these adaptations and leave parts of the original features visible, as it gives a better sense of how the house really was and gives visitors an idea of the curatorial and interpretive decisions that go on behind the scenes.

Stairway to nowhere.

In the second room, you are confronted with a wall of records selected from Hendrix’s impressive collection (pictured at top). You can really see Hendrix’s influences here: there are at least four Bob Dylan albums, records by Ravi Shankar and John Mayall, and several classical works, including multiple versions of Handel’s Messiah. Due to the ambiguous position of Handel’s blue plaque on the wall between numbers 23 and 25, Hendrix had initially thought that his flat had previously been lived in by Handel and was so pleased by the connection that he bought several copies.

Finally, we come to Jimi Hendrix’s bedroom. Much like Handel’s house, very little here is original, but it has been painstakingly recreated from photographs and the memories of Hendrix’s then girlfriend, the writer and DJ Kathy Etchingham. It’s a very brightly decorated space with rugs, cloth-draped lamps, scatter cushions and wall hangings everywhere. The bedspread is a shocking pink and orange pattern against the red carpet. Like Handel’s, Hendrix’s bed also has an awning hanging from the ceiling: a white woven cloth with long tassels. On a chair near the door is a large knitted soft toy, known as Dogbear, although it is much more badger-like than anything else.

A riot of colour: Hendrix’s bedroom. 

The volunteers were all very welcoming and happy to chat and share their knowledge on the history of the houses. There was also a strong emphasis on covid safety, with lots of hand sanitising stations and Handel and Hendrix themed covid safety notices. The one thing I felt was missing was a more explicit link between the two halves of the museum. Though at first glance Handel and Hendrix may seem worlds apart, there is much that ties them together other than their choice of home: both men were immigrants to England, both had to deal with the pressure of fame and intense scrutiny, both were considered pioneers in their field, and both crammed their Brook Street homes full of performers from London’s music scene.

Charles Jennens with some words of advice for 2021.

But nonetheless, I would recommend a trip to Handel & Hendrix in London to anyone. Whether you’re new to both men, or you consider Handel’s Messiah the ultimate bop, or if you can’t get enough of All Along the Watchtower, there’s something here for everyone.

Current opening times: 11am – 4pm on Fridays and Saturdays

Ticket prices: Adults £10, children £5 – as of mid-June 2021, must book in advance

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Beth Arscott

Beth Arscott has been volunteering and working in the heritage sector since 2015, and has a BA in Renaissance & Modern History and an MA in Art Gallery & Museum Studies. Beth’s museum roles have mainly been in Collections, and she has worked for several national museums and heritage organisations. Beth currently lives in London with her flatmate, several dying houseplants and a clutch of ornamental gourds.