The plot of land on which No. 25 Brook Street now stands was part of the Conduit Mead Estate, which was in the freehold of the Corporation of the City of London until 1971. In 1666 the Earl of Clarendon took a 99-year lease on the estate, but it was not to be developed extensively until the gradual growth of London northward from Piccadilly in the 18th century.
Brook Street takes its name from a tributary of the Tyburn River which ran southwards from Oxford Street towards the Thames. It was gradually developed throughout the early 18th century as part of the expansion of London to the west of the City and Westminster. The wide streets and large public squares of Mayfair were typical of the new urban architectural style that helped to define the English city.
Bordered by land owned by Lord Scarborough to the east and the Grosvenor family to the west, the plot between Bond Street and Avery Row was owned in 1716 by Huntley Bigg, a scrivener of St Martin in the Fields. George Barnes, a slater, took a lease from Biggs’s widow Martha in 1720, and built four town houses in a row including the present No. 25.
The Westminster Poor Rate book for 3 July 1723 shows the house as completed but unoccupied.
Handel in Brook Street
The Westminster Commissioner of Sewers rate book for 8 August 1723 shows No. 25 occupied by ‘Geo. Fredck Hendon Esq.’ in a handwritten note made by the assessor while he was visiting the building. Handel had taken a short sub-lease on the house from George Barnes at an annual rent of £60. As a foreign national, Handel could not own property or take a long lease.
This was the first private home in which Handel had lived in London, and marks a significant change in his domestic arrangements. Up to 1723 he had lived in the houses of a number of wealthy patrons. His occupation of the house in Brook Street indicates that he had achieved financial stability, both through income from performances of his Italian operas and his court appointment earlier in the year to the Chapel Royal.
When he moved in, Handel’s immediate neighbours were a Mrs. Catherine Johnson at No. 23, and John Monkton, member of Parliament and later 1st Viscount Galway at No. 27/29. As their status reveals, this was a good, upper-middle class area, at a discrete distance from the music and artistic communities centred around Soho and Covent Garden, but near to St. James’s Palace, where Handel performed his official duties, and the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, the focus of his Italian opera career at this time.
The plan of the house was usual for a modest London townhouse of the period. There was a basement containing the kitchens; from ground to second floor level a front and back room with a small closet block at the rear; and garrets at the top. The passage from the front door led to a ‘dog leg’ staircase at the back.
The first floor would have been the main reception and entertaining rooms. The first room, as the largest in the house, probably housed at least one of Handel’s large musical instruments, and was the room in which he performed for friends and held rehearsals. The adjoining room is believed to have been Handel’s composing room. The second floor contained the bedroom at the front with a dressing room at the back, whilst Handel’s servants, numbering at least three towards the end of his life, slept in the garrets.
By the time of his death, Handel owned an extensive collection of fine art as is indicated by the sale catalogue of 28 February 1760 which lists over eighty paintings, predominantly oils, and prints. A Rembrandt landscape was acquired by Handel in 1749/50 for £39 18s.
Handel conducted some business from his home. Subscribers would collect their scores from Brook Street as well as tickets for the opera season. Such visitors would probably have been ushered into the ground floor front parlour.
After Handel’s death in April 1759 the tenancy passed to his servant John Du Burk, who not only inherited all of Handel’s clothes but also purchased, for the sum of £48, the chattels which remained in the house in the August after the composer’s death.
Subsequently, the house was occupied by a succession of residents including a number of distinguished military men, an apothecary, an author and diplomat, and a family of dentists. In 1905 for the first time parts of the house was converted into a shop, occupying the ground and first floor, although the first floor was restored as residential space in 1953. The upper floors were converted into office space, and were most famously the home of the textile firm Viyella from the mid-1950s.
The Handel House Trust
The possibility of converting Handel’s house into a museum to commemorate the life and work of the composer had been investigated many times in the early 20th century. In 1959, at a party to commemorate the bicentenary of Handel’s death in the Viyella offices, the musicologist Stanley Sadie revived the idea. But it was not until the early 1990s that Stanley and his wife Julie Anne were able to form the Handel House Trust, to raise funds for the purchase of the building and its restoration.
They gathered together a Committee of Honour made up of distinguished musicians and other supporters to help the fundraising efforts and lend their name to the project. In April 1996 the Trust was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and negotiations were opened with the Co-operative Insurance Society, who had held the freehold since 1971, for the purchase of the lease. Initially it was hoped that the whole of 25 Brook Street and the upper floors of 23 Brook Street would be purchased for the new museum. However, at the time the freeholders decided not to release the retail unit on the ground floor.
In June 2000, The Handel House Trust signed the lease for the upper floors of Nos. 25 and 23 Brook Street and within a month, construction work began.
The Handel House Museum opened to the public on 8 November 2001.
The Restoration of 25 Brook Street
The Handel House Trust has restored as faithfully as possible the early Georgian interiors of 25 Brook Street.
One of the few surviving features from the period is the original staircase with its exquisite tread ends. Elsewhere, walls were removed and reinstated according to the early Georgian sequence of rooms on the first and second floors. The neighbouring 27/29 Brook Street, which retains much of the detail of the original Barnes development, was used as the prototype for panelling profiles, cornices, shutters, dados and window seats. Three marble fire surrounds salvaged from the 18th century Tom's coffee house in Covent Garden were installed in the front and middle rooms on the first floor and the bedroom. The floors were patched in with second-hand boards, which were limed and waxed, and lime plaster ceilings were reinstated.
Paint analysis shows that the original colour of the interiors was a lead grey with a dark chocolate brown subsequently applied to the doors. As was commonplace in early Georgian interiors, areas which became dirty through use, such as doors and skirtings were tidied up with this dark brown
One vital document for the display of the interiors is an inventory taken in August 1759, four months after Handel's death. Although valuable items may already have been given away, it provides a good indication of the type of furniture and soft furnishings contained within the house. Examples that fit the description of the inventory are displayed in the current museum giving an idea of how the rooms functioned during Handel's occupancy. This includes a full tester (or canopied) bed dressed in crimson harateen and a double manual harpsichord commissioned to the specifications of the instrument Handel would have owned.
The interiors of 25 Brook Street as they are now presented are a scholarly recreation, using all available documentation, prototypes and archaeological evidence. As such they are as close as possible to the interiors that Handel would have known.