George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) lived at 25 Brook Street from 1723 until his death, composing Messiah within its very walls (I wouldn’t have guessed this from the sparsely furnished building that presents itself as the Handle House Museum).
The museum apparently throws rather good concerts in a room on the first floor, but save for a bed, a faded bedside chest and a rather fine picture of Handel on loan from the Royal Collection, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were visiting a work in progress rather than a museum that has been open since November 2001.
Interestingly, a couple of weeks after my trip I went to the Foundling Museum. To my surprise the Handel collection there is amazing because they house the Gerald Coke Handel Collection.
Why did I visit? Well, in early spring this year I visited a lovingly restored early Georgian town house at 68 Dean Street owned by a member of the Georgian Group. Having visited dozens of stately country houses I was reminded how interesting the history of inner cities is and so I’m trying to visit more town houses.
My visit to the Handel House Museum was therefore to see the house, not the collection. However, on that level I was also quite disappointed.
The tour starts on the top (2nd) floor in a room with the later addition of a bay window. However, the MDF (?) dentil-toped fireplace and redecoration of this room stinks of B&Q and there’s a scratchy carpet and folding metal chairs. When it is evident that so much effort has been put into restoring other parts of the house, why take this crude approach creating a pastiche in the first room?
The main house consists of a dressing room, bedroom and three exhibition rooms. The authentic ‘drab’ Georgian colours on the wals and doors are inspirational. They were researched by Patrick Baty (who owns Paper and Paints). Lucy Ingis‘ guest post on his blog here adds further fascinating detail. For a while I’ve been looking for a grey for a room at home and so may be visiting Patrick.
I took little other inspiration. There’s an interesting exhibition of the restoration of this house but it could be much more extensive. The house was in a very poor condition when it was acquired to form the museum and so a lot has been achieved – walls reinstated, research conducted, and the remnants of Jimmy Hendrix (who lived in 23 Brook Street for a while) shook right out of its hair (joke); however, the floors have been left curiously higgledy piggledy and the preparation of the woodwork before it was repainted seems lacking in the large part. The most exciting part of the tour was the introductory video.
Handel was the first occupant of the house, part of a four-building development by speculative builder George Barnes. Brook Street was planned and built between 1717 and 1726, connecting Hanover Square and Grosvenor Square: a good upper-middle class area. Although away from the artistic centres of Soho and Covent Garden, it was within easy walking distance of St James’s Palace, where Handel conducted his official duties, and the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, the focus of his Italian opera career at the time.
The typical floor plan of this modest London house included a basement with kitchens (no longer in existence); from ground to second floor, a front and back room with a small closet block at the rear; and the garrets at the top. The passage from the front door led to the dogleg staircase at the back.
On Handel’s death, the tenancy passed to his servant John Du Burk, who also purchased the remaining chattels for £48. Around 1790, the closets at the rear were replaced by the bow window block and in the 1830s the garrets were raised to the height of a full storey. In 1905, art dealer CJ Charles turned the house into a shop, removing the first two storeys of the original façade and internal partition walls. Since 1971, the freehold has been owned by the Co-operative Insurance Society and in 2000 the upper storeys were leased to the Handel House Trust.
Would I go back? For a concert maybe. However, I will continue looking elsewhere for inspirational townhouses.
When visited: 2011
Getting there: as the main entrance is currently a shop the entrance is in a back alley. It’s a pain to find – I got lost 3 times. It’s off a tiny alley from Bond Street or (and this is what I’d advise), find 25 Brook Street and walk past it until you come across a cobbled yard down a slope: walk down and turn left after the designer dress shop.
Theme tune: Handel’s Messiah