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Jul 8 / Simon

Echoes of the past

Nadfas Review Summer 2016
Brook Street in London was gnome to two brilliant musicians, two centuries and one brick wall apart. A new museum recreates their homes at number 23 and 25. Simon Tait funds out more
Shaving one afternoon in his Mayfair bathroom Jim Hendrix was suddenly aware that he was not alone. Peering past his own reflection in the mirror, he was aware of a figure apparently standing behind him, a round face framed in a white wig. “The bathroom was upstairs and he came down and said ‘You’ll never guess who I just saw…’,” recalls his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. “Madeleine Bell (the singer) was here and we said, ‘What are you on?’ but he insisted it was true – he’d just seen Handel.”

It was the summer of 1968 and the couple had recently moved into the third floor Brook Street flat in London’s Mayfair, found through an advertisement in a London evening paper for a rent of £30 a week. “We had no idea who Handel was until music students started coming round wanting to see where he lived because of the blue plaque on the wall – and they’d no idea who Jimi was,” says Ms Etchingham.

In his private moments, as he worked on his own compositions, Hendrix would play classical music, often Handel, as well as blues and jazz. “We went to the HMV shop in Oxford Street and bought The Messiah and The Water Music and came to love Handel,” said Ms Etchingham. “Classical music was calming, Jimi liked the rhythms,” said his biographer, Harry Shapiro, “and though it probably didn’t influence what he wrote it certainly helped his mood”.

It is a trick of fate that two iconic musicians from such different parts of the spectrum came to live in side-by-side houses two centuries apart. Handel’s house, No 25, was acquired by the Handel’s House Trust and restored, opening as a museum in 2001, and now Hendrix’s tiny flat at the top of No 23 has been restored by the trust to the way he knew it at a cost of £2.4m, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and opened in February. The domuses have now been combined as Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum’s new name.

Georg Friedrich Handel, born in Halle, Germany, in 1685 and coming to London to seek his fortune in 1712, was already a success when he moved into the newly built four-storey townhouse in Brook Street in 1723, at the age of 38. Although he had anglicised his name to George Frideric he was still an alien and as such not allowed to own property, and even though he became a British citizen in 1727 he continued to pay an annual rent for the home in which he lived for the last 34 years of his life, dying here in April 1759. It was even then a well-to-do part of London.

It was at 25 Brook Street that Handel composed most of his finest works, including The Messiah, Zadok the Priest and The Royal Fireworks Music. He made use of the whole house with his servants sleeping on the top floor (in space now used for the Jimi Hendrix display about the rock musician and his circle next to the corresponding rooms at No 23 where Hendrix and his partner were to make their home two centuries later). On the second floor was his bedroom and dressing room, and on the first he composed, rehearsed and held informal performances. From the ground floor (now a shop unconnected with the museum) he sold music and tickets to his concerts. Among the objects on display is a letter from Handel to his librettist, Charles Jennens, about The Messiah, and Mozart’s hand-written arrangement of a Handel fugue. There are also portraits and caricatures of the great man, including on his bedroom a magisterial bust by Roubilliac.

The music room was the centre of Handel’s life here. Invited to a rehearsal of Alcina, the opera Handel composed soon after his arrival in Brook Street, with his favourite soprano Anna Maria Strada, the society intellectual (and close Handel friend) Mary Pendarves declared: “Whilst Mr Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking him a necromancer in the midst of his enchantments”.

The music room still hosts concerts – not cramming in the 40 or 50 Handel used to invite but 25 or so – and when NADFAS Review visited, the harpsichordist Laurence Cummings and flautist Rachel Brown were rehearsing (pictured). Laurence was playing a new acquisition for the museum, a double manual harpsichord made in 1754 by the London maker Jacob Kirkman whose instruments Handel is known to have played. It was a gift in 2015 in memory of Ellie Warburg of the banking family, who had died the previous year.

The idea of the museum started with the musicologist Stanley Sadie who, with his wife Julie, set up the Handel House Trust in the early 1990s to acquired the house and convert it. Its restoration to the way it would have looked in Georgian times was painstaking. Archive evidence was delved into and an inventory of the very sparse contents taken after his death, now in the British Library, with scrapings of the original paint taken so that the house could be returned to the way Handel would have known it. It was opened to the public in November 2001.

Now it has been joined by memories of another musical icon. Unlike Handel’s house next door, the tiny flat is crammed with the personal tropes of its occupants mostly bought from junk shops and street stalls – Hendrix and Kathy Etchingham bought rugs, his particular enthusiasm. “With Kathy’s help we have had to acquire everything to recreate it,” said Sarah Bardwell, now a trustee of the museum and its former director, who began the project. “We used some of the sources, like Portobello Road, that Kathy and Jimi did, but we were also able to haunt the websites that they could not”.

Many items had to be remade to exact specifications, and even the brilliant white woodchip wallpaper has had to be recreated. The crimson bedspread on the divan, the carver chair, the curtains and the shawl that doubled as a bed canopy – even the unfolding firescape outside the window – have all been made. On the bed is Hendrix’s famous Epiphone FT79 acoustic guitar, bought for $25 in New York, which was his principal song-writing instrument on which he created his famous version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.

The flat had a bathroom and kitchen (yet to be restored) above the main room and a second room used to store clothes and guitars, now with a display of the covers of some of Hendrix’s vast record collection. And while other rock stars of the late Sixties lived in luxurious seclusion in St John’s Wood, Cheyne Walk and Weybridge, Hendrix was enjoying domestic bliss at the heart of the world’s trendiest city.

But Hendrix’s stay here was all too brief. He and Etchingham broke up in March of 1969 and they moved out the following month, Hendrix dying from a barbiturate overdose in September 1970, aged 27. But his blue plaque is at 23 Brook Street, which Hendrix called the first home of his own, next to George Friderik Handel’s at No 25.

Handel & Hendrix in London at 25 Brook Street, London W1K 4HB, is open 10am-6pm Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat; 10am-8pm Thurs; 12pm-6pm Sun; closed Monday.