We visit… Handel & Hendrix in London

Six months on from the opening of Jimi Hendrix’s former flat in the attic space of Handel House, we travelled to the museum to see the exhibit for ourselves.

Today, the Handel House Trust owns the beautifully restored residences, collectively known as ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’. Director and CEO Michelle Aland runs the museum with a dedicated team of staff and volunteers. She was kind enough to guide us through the exhibits.

Michelle joined the trust just under a year ago, a few months before the Hendrix flat opened to the public. She had spent the previous 10 years working for the Royal Albert Hall, so was the ideal candidate to help create a successful visitor attraction that pleased fans of Baroque and rock alike.

Michelle’s love of music and cultural monuments is apparent from the moment you meet her. “I’ve always had an interest in the arts and music,” she explains. “I read Liberal Arts at university and studied abroad in Spain, so you could say I’ve been a student of the museums of the world.”

Her favourite part of her job is overhearing visitors’ stories as they marvel at the exhibits and restorations. “You’ll hear fathers say: ‘I went to this gig at the Scotch,’ or, ‘I saw Hendrix here at the Isle of Wright,’” she explains. “Those memories are very special. To see people enjoying the exhibit is the best part of the job.”

Round the houses

It’s easy to see why the museum conjures such special memories and great feedback.

As visitors pass through the entrance and wind their way up the original oak staircase, they’re met with Handel’s first-floor composition room. The creation of a huge catalogue of his music took place here, and recitals can be heard in the music room next door.

Every Thursday evening, performances from the next generation of musical talent are held here. From programmes centred around Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin’s virtuosic command of the flute to recitals of Johann Sebastian Bach, these evening sessions bring the space to life.

“I think what’s most special about Handel House is the fact that you’re able to visit Handel’s actual music room and hear music in the way that he performed it,” says Michelle.

The same floor houses an exhibition space, studio and costume room, where visitors young and old can fuse Baroque opulence with colourful ’60s fashion. It’s a favourite with Instagramers.

On the second floor, visitors can step inside Handel’s own dressing room. Next door is the fully restored bedroom, complete with a Georgian four-poster bed. Michelle explains that the space would have provided a welcome escape for such a private man.

The little wing

At this point, visitors are hurtled forward 200 years, to 1968 – the year Jimi Hendrix moved into 23 Brook Street with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The flat, which forms the attic of Handel House, opened to the public in February of this year, and has been hailed as a near-perfect representation of the original space.

This likeness is no accident. Though Hendrix occupied the flat for less than year, it served as a hub for dozens of interviews and photoshoots that preserved its aesthetic on film. Kathy, who acted as a consultant, filled in the blanks.

“It was interesting to be able to talk to someone about the room and incorporate some of Hendrix’s personal effects,” Michelle explains. “I think that’s why it becomes a more personal look at an artist’s life.

The exhibition itself includes insight into the months Hendrix spent at the flat, along with footage, photos and other paraphernalia from his years on the road, including the acoustic guitar on which he first played most of his songs. Visitors can also sneak a peek at his record collection, and learn about the musicians that inspired his brief but remarkable career.

At the front of the flat is Hendrix’s bedroom, or ‘The Hendrix Room’ as Kathy coined it. It is surprisingly tidy – after his years in the army, Hendrix was obsessively neat. The bed, surrounded by Indian- and African-inspired fabrics (a nod to his heritage), provides the centrepiece, as it was from here that he conducted interviews, wrote music and entertained guests.

Looking beyond the colourful interior and out into the world below, today’s Mayfair seems light-years away from the area that Hendrix knew of, but Michelle explains that there are more similarities than you might think.

“Hendrix was walking to all the guitar shops on Dean Street, shopping at Liberty, John Lewis and HMV, and he was getting his fashion from South Molton Street,” she reveals. “Then there were the clubs; Ronnie Scott’s or the Scotch, which are still there today… So the area would probably still serve him very well.

“Everyone that knew Hendrix says he would have loved the evolution of digital music, because he was a musical innovator. He was a perfectionist and knew in his head how he wanted something to be.”

If Hendrix measured success through perfectionism, he would no doubt have heralded Handel & Hendrix in London an outstanding feat.

This month, the trust is celebrating 50 years since Hendrix moved to London, while November marks the 15th anniversary of the opening of Handel House. Click here for the full programme of events.