On Sunday 25th November 2012, I visited the house of George Frederic Handel at 25 Brook Street in London’s Mayfair . I am attaching a few photographs of my recent visit including portraits of Handel, by Philip Mercier c 1730 (wigless at harpsichord) and Charles Jennins by Thomas Hudson c 1744 (ruddy complexioned and prosperous) the librettist, who is associated with a number of Handel’s oratorios including Messiah.
When the 25 year old Handel arrived in London in 1710, he had already achieved astonishing success as a composer and musician in both Germany and Italy. His five year stay in Italy had produced an outpouring of Italian opera including Rodrigo (1701) and Aggripina(1709). He was also considered to be an outstanding harpsichordist. In 1710, he had been appointed Kapelmeister by George Ludvig, elector of Hannover and the future George 1.
Handel’s first visit to London, originally intended to be a “year out” from Hannover saw him performing in front of Queen Anne. In 1712, two years prior to the succession of George I, he returned to London for good, where, apart from occasional visits to continental Europe and Dublin, he was to remain for the rest of his working life. A sense of permanence must have been solidified by the advent of the new Hanoverian regime. London, musically and artistically, was the place to be:
In these times, wrote Handel’s Hamburg contemporary Johann Mattheson in 1713, whoever wishes to be eminent in music goes to England. In Italy and France, there is something to be heard and learned; in England something to be earned.
In 1723, following his appointment as Composer to the Chapel Royal, Handel moved into 25 Brook Street . The house was part of a four building residential development which had been completed, speculatively, by the builder George Barns.
The house is easy to miss, Initially I headed westwards past Claridges towards Grosvenor Square before backtracking towards the intersection of Brook Street with New Bond Street. 25 Brook Street is an elegant three storey building, quiet and understated in comparison with some of its larger neighbours. At first floor level, a blue plaque marks the residence of the composer. More or less side by side another blue plaque, commemorates the musician, Jimmy Hendrix, who lived next door in the late 1960s. The entrance to Handel’s house is from Lancaster Court, round the back. The rear of the building, with its alley ways and narrow closes, suggests an older city – light years from the designer shops and bollards dressed as Christmas presents (“cadeaux” and Calvin Klein) on the other side of the building.
Nothing remains of the original contents, although the restoration team were assisted by an inventory of Handel’s belongings, compiled in the months after his death in 1759. Endless paint scraping revealed the original steely grey/silver paintwork. There is some beautiful 18th portraiture in the house. A portrait of Alexander Pope evoles a new kind of Englishness which Handel espoused. In the Dunciad, Alexander Pope initially attacked Handel for his fondness of Italian opera but In a later edition he praised Handel – a man now clearly way beyond dullness – for his use of the English language. Hogarth’s Enraged Musician (1741), is a satirical representation of London street music deafening, defeating even, a foreign looking, possibly Italian, violinist. A Roubiliac bust of Handel’s head stands in his bedroom. Only a week previously, I had been gazing, with new eyes, at Roubiliac’s Forbes of Culloden, in Parliament Hall in Edinburgh. Although comparatively little is known of the man, we know that Handel was a great collector of art and acquired a number of “Masters” including paintings by Rembrandt, during his lifetime.
I loved the wooden panelling – it seemed to be everywhere – the narrow stair cases and the creeking floor boards. I was surprised to discover that the room where Handel is said to have composed was a smallish – quite dark – back room. Unlike his contemporary, JS Bach, Handel was unmarried. There were no children tearing up and down those wooden stairs. I watched an audiovisual presentation and listened to the insights of a singer, a former director of the Academy of Ancient Music, and the quintessentially English actor, Timothy West. It was difficult to think about George Frederic Handel, the man, or his house, without thinking about the great man’s music. I appreciated waiting outside the house and hearing the faint sound of his music from within. House, music, city, country, century and performance formed their own distinctive harmony. Time pressed, but I was fascinated to learn a little bit more about the librettist Charles Jennens, the subject of a special exhibition at the Museum. His working relationship with Handel, although slightly fraught, was long lasting. Jennens was a non jurist, a man of Jacobite sympathies ,who didn’t swear the oath of allegiance to the new Hannoverian regime, and was barred from political office.
I enjoyed my visit. I wish I could have stayed longer. Wherever I go, I seem to leave a trail of detritus. I leave things – or things leave me – and then I look for them. This is how I spend my life – looking for things. I toured the museum a second time searching for a scarf which, as I eventually discovered, was tucked inside the sleeve of my coat. Later, as I sat on a “cadeau” in Mayfair, eating my picnic lunch, I thought, for a dreadful moment, that I was going to be moved on. My next appointment was a visit to the Royal Academy of Music.