Let's visit...Handel & Hendrix in London Location: 23/25 Brook Street, Mayfair W1K 4HB [map] Open: from 11am (closed Sundays) Admission: £10.00 (children free on Saturdays) Website:handelhendrix.org Four word summary: two famous musical neighbours Time to allow: about an hour
When George Frideric Handel was 38 he rented a new house on the edge of London in up-and-coming Mayfair and stayed there for the rest of his life. When guitarist Jimi Hendrix was 25 he rented a flat in trendy Mayfair and stayed there for three months. What's extraordinary is that they lived nextdoor to each another, over two centuries apart, as two adjacent blue plaques now attest. Both properties are now part of one museum devoted to their lives in London, successfully linked in 2016, and making the transition from classical to rock is as easy as crossing the landing.
As well as being a prodigious musical talent, Handel had the good fortune to be living in Hanover shortly before its Elector crossed the Channel to become King George I. A favourite at court, he soon became firmly embedded in London society, and wrote many of his most famous works here at number 25. He could easily have afforded to buy the place, or move elsewhere, but instead continued to rent the property until the day he died (upstairs, in 1759). Damned Europeans, bringing their talents to the UK and never going home.
A prodigious musical talent, Hendrix's unmatched guitar skills brought him attention and acclaim at the flowerier end of the 1960s. 50 years ago this month he and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved into the top two floors of number 23, partying hard and sleeping late, regularly inviting musicians, journalists and hangers-on into their domain. Early 1969 was a rare spell of relative calm for a musician who'd then spend the rest of his life moving from hotel room to hotel room, until it was cut tragically short in 1970.
It's no longer possible to enter the building via Handel's front door, you have to head round the back (via exclusive Lancashire Court) to find the rear entrance. Even once inside there's nothing to see until you've climbed a couple of flights of stairs, or taken the lift, because downstairs is now commercial property selling leather goods and cashmere. Climb high enough and the wooden staircase is original, with (to modern feet) unusually shallow treads.
First to see in Handel House is his composing room, the actual room where he wrote the actual Messiah (in 24 days flat), Zadok the Priest and all those oratorios he brought to public favour. That's also his actual bookcase on the wall, packed with scores, although all the other furniture is borrowed, rescued or reproduction. A video screen on the wall ensures that a loop of Handel's music still rings out across his former property. The front room was his parlour where he performed his latest compositions to invited guests, relaxed and also dined. Musicians still drop by to play the harpsichord or perform in recitals, generally in a baroque manner (check website for details). Upstairs is his bedroom, dominated by a plush red tester, plus a further selection of bewigged (and unbewigged) portraits. If you fancy a photo-opportunity, a mix of Georgian hats, Sixties velvet jackets and other crazy mixed-up clothing hangs from a rack in Handel's dressing room. The ambience is strong.
Climb to the third floor to reach Hendrix's flat. This is no poky bedsit but a decent-sized gaff with a spare room and an (unseen) pink kitchen upstairs. The initial gallery describes his career with a particular focus on the London years, including that Albert Hall concert, plus tales of nights in either with the speakers turned up (on drugs) or watching Coronation Street (with a mug of milky tea). A video screen on the wall ensures that Hendrix's guitar still rings out across his former property. A particularly nice touch is Hendrix's vinyl record collection recreated on plywood squares for you to flick through. But the best space is the perfectly reproduced bedroom, complete with fabric drapes, overflowing ashtrays and Beogram turntable. Here Jimi would have laid back with that guitar on the bedspread, or picked out another scarf to wear, or perhaps indulged in some sci-fi from the bookcase. This is where you'll linger longest.
It's a perfect pairing. The second best thing about the museum is all the information there is to read, on walls or in the individual room guides. The text is packed with entertaining anecdotes and exquisite detail, for example the 18th century socialite who suddenly died of a heart attack after being surprised by a ventriloquist, or the time Jimi popped round to John Lewis soft furnishings department. But the best thing must be the museum's staff, liberally scattered across all floors, and better than most at imparting entertaining counsel. They know where the Georgian fireplace and the box of Monopoly came from, what the shop used to be originally and how old the floorboards are. They may also tell you the same anecdote about Jimi buying a couple of Handel LPs from HMV just after he moved in, twice, but you won't mind that.