Some 18 months after it closed for refurbishment, what has to be one of the oddest accidental museums anywhere has reopened to the public.
The museum is devoted to the music and lives of two very different musicians separated by a couple of centuries in time, and a thin wall in geography — as by sheer coincidence, US rock legend Jimi Hendrix ended up living in the house next to German-British composer George Frideric Handel.
On a very different scale though – as Handel had a whole house, while Hendrix had a few rooms above the shop next door.
The museum, Handel House initially opened in 2001 having just the upper floors of Handel’s home, but in 2016, they gained access to Jimi Hendrix’s rooms next door, joining them at the hip so to speak.
However, the museum, being above a couple of shops was quite easy to miss as it had just one small red door to announce it’s existence — until September 2021, when a £3 million project allowed them to take over the ground floor shop – previously Aspinals, and also restore the basement kitchen, so now there’s a much larger museum to visit and now a much easier one to find.
I would start a visit by standing on the other side of the road and take a good look at the buildings. The one on the right with the large red museum entrance is Handel’s house, while the space above the shop on the left was rented by Jimi Hendrix. Two blue plaques mark the spot, but it helps inside to have paused a moment outside to get your bearings.
Inside you start with Handel and end with Hendrix. Actually, you end with a gift shop, but let’s not go there, well, not just yet.
Handel’s house is actually quite interesting, in a to modern eyes slightly depressing way — as Handel probably leased the house while it was still being built, as there are signs of his changes to the plans, especially the stairs in the layout. However, Handel was German, so while he could lease the house, as a foreigner, even one employed by the King, he was barred from buying it.
Handel moved into his new home in the summer of 1723, and lived there until he died in 1759.
Although it passed through a number of owners after his death, it’s been restored back pretty much to how it was originally thanks to a detailed inventory of its contents written when Handel died.
So to step inside today is to step back 300 years.
Downstairs, the kitchen has largely been restored back to its original layout, although the incredibly heavy water tank would have been outside (and invisible to visitors), and the floor tiles came from Leicester Cathedral of all places.
The rest of the house has been laid out very much as a working gentleman’s home of the mid-Georgian era, remembering that this was as much a place to live as to receive visitors and perform music.
The house would likely have had many different coloured rooms, but they’ve pared it back to the original pale grey it would have had when Handel first moved in, although there are some blue rooms, which are the post-Handel extensions.
A few nice touches bring the rooms to life, such as projecting animations of music on the empty walls in one room, and listening booths in another. The main front room was, and will again, be used for performances, and they aim to perform Handel on Thursdays and Hendrix on Fridays.
What transforms this museum from just a house museum into something rather more special is the neighbouring house.
For a short period of time, in 1968/69, American rock singer-guitarist Jimi Hendrix rented rooms with his girlfriend in the house next door. The location was said to be ideal for him as there weren’t many residential neighbours and all the shops closed at weekends.
He didn’t know at the time who his long distant neighbour was but when he later found out, became quite interested in Handel’s music which he described as the “Beethoven of rock”.
To walk between the two occupants is to step from the rarified Georgian era into a very different bohemian flat which looks just like you’d expect a Jimi Hendrix flat to look like.
There are a lot of details here that just add to the atmosphere, such as the Carnaby print tissues, the huge pile of cigarettes (and feel sorry for the curator who had to to smoke them all for the display), and plenty of personal artefacts. Not many are from Hendrix himself, but some are on loan from his then girlfriend and others are contemporary to the period.
What they’ve really captured though is the atmosphere. It’s more of a Dennis Sevres style experience than a collection of valuable objects to be kept in protective glass cases. Rather than standing behind a rope to look at a sanctified space, you are invited to walk in and stand within the life experience of the musician.
A couple of more modern rooms tell his story but do look in the staircase for the blocked-off stairs up to another room which was occasionally used by people staying with Jimi Hendrix, although it was apparently freezing cold up there.
As a museum to visit, by sheer accident, it’s a very odd one, in a good way. Some house museums devoted to a notable person can be a bit difficult to visit if you’re not a huge fan of the person, with rooms filled with apparently important objects that only a fan would understand.
However, here, the collection is rather lighter on that, and has more of an atmosphere that lets you step back into a Georgian house and see how that would have looked, and then to step forward, and yet still in the past to the smokey heady world of the 1960s.
And what an extra coincidence that both occupants’ surnames started with H.
What is now the Handel Hendrix House is open Wed-Sun (groups on Mon-Tue) and costs £14 for adults and free for children.
They recommend booking in advance as they might have to turn people away if it’s too busy otherwise.