With COVID 19 taking its toll by closing music venues, festivals, museums and galleries; the only live events that you are likely to have seen since mid-March have probably been live streams. Thankfully some places are starting to find ways to enable visitors to safely walk through their doors again. The Handel & Hendrix in London Museum is one of those places that has been able to do so who invited XS Noize to the official reopening.
Music and musicians are at the heart of Central London’s Brook Street which has an almost 300-year-old history. In 1723 classical composer George Frideric Handel became the first resident (No 25) of this newly built building. As well as being his first own home which he would live in until his death in 1759; it was here where Handel composed his most famous work: “Messiah”.
Whilst Jimi Hendrix’s stay (at the adjacent No 23) was much shorter-lived (July 1968 – early 1969); Hendrix said: “This is my first real home of my own”. Furthermore, once at Brook Street, Jimi became acquainted with his neighbour Handel. Upon seeing his blue plaque outside the building, Hendrix decided to self-educate himself about classical music and went to the closest HMV to Brook Street (which at the time was 363 Oxford Street) and purchased Handel’s recordings of “Messiah” and “Belshazzar”. At one point Jimi thought he saw Handel’s ghost.
Upon entering the museum one is greeted by helpful and knowledgeable staff who provide visitors (should they require them) with physical reading guide packs or single-use headphones so one can take the audio tour through the museum website via their smartphones. With the temporary closure of the physical gift shop, removal of some interactive features (don’t worry there is still free Wi-Fi) and hand sanitizer on each floor with clearly marked “One Way” signs throughout; one does not have to worry about missing out on any rooms and exhibits or coming into too close proximity with other visitors. The first two floors focus on the rooms Handel lived in as well as exhibits about his life and the London setting his was part of. The final floor focuses on the rooms Hendrix rented with his then partner Kathleen Etchingham as well as a celebratory exhibition.
The antithetical worlds and times Handel and Hendrix lived in are evident with Handel’s commissioned painted portraits, gigantic handmade and elaborately decorated harpsichords and the court fashion décor compared to Hendrix’s vinyl record collection (and leak stereo 70 amp on a bang & Olufsen turntable he played them on), acoustic and electric guitars and photographs of Jimi (including the legendary 1967 photographs by East-End photographer Mike Berkofsky).
One thing these two non-British born men have in common is that they were both sought out by the British for their musical abilities. Once the Elector of Hanover gave Handel the job of Music Director to the Hanover Court in 1710 and Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler (ex-The Animals) brought him over on 24 September 1966; they both never looked back and lived out their final days in London.
As well as providing visitors with all the essential information in a variety of easy to follow formats; one also gains insight into the lives of these men (particularly Hendrix) which cannot be documented in a biographic. Brook Street was supposed to have been a quiet domestic retreat for Jimi and Kathleen and to an extent, it was where the couple did regular everyday things like watch Coronation Street and drink “milky tea rather than scotch and coke”. However, at the same time, Hendrix regularly jammed at the nearby Speakeasy and would then continue to party back at Brook Street until the early hours and not rise until 2 pm the following day which earned him the nickname “The Bat”.
The décor of Hendrix’s bedroom including Jimi’s favourite canopy over the bed (which was partially procured from John Lewis in nearby Oxford Street) is recreated based on photographs and the descriptions provided by Kathleen Etchingham to perfection. It was a relief that a sensory reproduction was not created as there was a frequent smell of cigarettes, and as Hendrix disliked joss sticks; there were few challengers to see off the nicotine-based aroma.
The small spare room where Hendrix’s late-night visitors would crash has been turned into a virtual record shop depicting the 100+ vinyl titles (including several Bob Dylan titles) Jimi owned whilst at Brook House. The different genres including blues, jazz and classical are examined and analysed. We also learn that in this flat Jimi was able to jam with one of his favourite artists: American jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
The COVID measures (including the removal of some interactive features) have in no way reduced or made the museum experience less enjoyable. In fact cleverly witted signs (such as the one by Charles Jennens in the Handel sections to not touch objects one would not be permitted to touch anyway) actually aid visitors by helping them explore the exhibits and rooms further to learn that Charles Jennens was Handel’s biographer. Visitors also learn about the key people in Handel’s life including Venetian mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni who sang in Handel’s opera seasons.
Whilst you cannot (or shouldn’t) see or feel the spirits of Handel and Hendrix throughout the Handel & Hendrix in London Museum; you can see (thanks to the deft curation of the museum team) how these artists lived their lives at Brook Street and the importance of Brook Street in these artists work, identify and building and cementing of their characters. Without Brook Street and the museum team who curate the exhibitions and maintain Brook Street, we would be none the wiser.
To plan your visit and book your tickets visit https://handelhendrix.org/