Tag Archives: museum

London’s latest museum – Jimi Hendrix’s Mayfair flat

This is a piece I wrote for Eurostar about the conversion of Jimi Hendix’s Mayfair flat into London’s first historic house dedicated to a rock star (a small exhibition was held in the flat in 2010). Interestingly, even before the death of David Bowie, the museum’s curators were concerned the flat would be turned into a shrine by fans.

The museum is a strong addition to London’s cultural scene, filling a definite blank space. It begins with an informative timeline of Hendrix’s life focusing on his time in London, and then moves into this charming and evocative recreation of his tiny bedroom, which is both ostentatious yet surprisingly spartan. 

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Hendrix’s reconstructed bedroom, with former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham

When Barrie Wentzell photographed Jimi Hendrix at the rock star’s London flat in 1968, neither of them imagined that the colourful bedroom would one day be transformed into a museum. “I photographed him for Melody Maker,” says Wentzell. “It seemed so small when I went back recently. He’d have found it hilarious that it’s being turned into a museum.” Hendrix moved into 23 Brook Street in January 1968 with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, using it as a base to explore London as well as a space to conduct interviews and hang out with fellow musicians – George Harrison was one of those who stayed overnight on a camp bed. Since 2001, the flat was used as offices by the Handel House Museum who are located at the 18th-century composer’s old home next door at No 25. The entire space is now being renamed Hendrix & Handel In London, and Hendrix’s flat will open to the public in February 2016.

Hendrix arrived in London in September 1966 and began playing shows on his first night, immediately attracting the attention of a London music establishment who had seen or heard nothing like him. Incendiary, transformative early gigs in tiny West End clubs were witnessed by the likes of Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and The Beatles. “All those guys, they played the blues but Hendrix had taken it to a different level,” says Wentzell. “He told me once, ‘Sometimes I play the guitar and sometimes the guitar plays me’. But he was very humble and soft-spoken, he kind of under-rated himself. He would talk about how great Clapton was and Clapton said the same about him. They had real love for each other.”

London boasted a powerful music scene packed into a small corner of the West End, and word about Hendrix soon spread. He became a star and as a result, he loved the city. Although he’d met Etchingham on his first day in London, he spent much of those early months moving between flats and hotels. “He moved around an awful lot and had lots of girlfriends who all thought they were the one,” recalls journalist Chris Welch, who interviewed Hendrix several times. Etchingham and Hendrix eventually moved in together, paying £30 a week for the pokey one-bed Mayfair apartment above a restaurant called Mr Love. Hendrix called it “the first real home of my own” and helped select ostentatious decorations of bright fabrics, peacock feathers, bric-a-brac and a rubber rat. The bedroom, which is where most of the entertaining took place, is being recreated for the museum after curators identified and tracked down around 70 items of furniture and fittings. Other exhibits include clothes, records and guitars as well as a timeline exploring Hendrix’ pivotal London months.

Although Hendrix spent his time in Brook Street enjoying some level of domesticity – he played Risk and watched Coronation Street – he also threw himself into the world of Swinging London, which was right on his doorstep. Promotors, agents, publicists, music papers, clubs, guitar shops, studios and fashion boutiques were all based in Mayfair and Soho. “He was in the best place to be,” says Welch. “Bands from all over the world converged on London and it was still the hippie era so if you were going to be accepted for being unusual anywhere it was the West End. He was adopted by Londoners very quickly.” Wentzell agrees. “There was a lot of love for Jimi,” he says. “He was only around for four years and he changed the world, he really did.”

Hendrix, who died in London in September 1970, always loved the flat’s connection to Handel – indeed, he believed he was living in Handel’s old home as Handel’s blue plaque was on the wall separating the two properties. “I remember him saying that he got this vibe of music from Handel and we joked about how he’d like to have jammed with him,” says Wentzell. “I guess now he is.”

Handel & Hendrix In London, 23-25 Brook Street. Opens on 10 February 2016.

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Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City (image below from Knowledge Of London).

The Temple of Mithras: ‘crap’

All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.

The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes  in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.

A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.

The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.

The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.

Five unknown London pleasures

1 London’s first artificial ice rink
The Glaciarium opened in 1842 at the Baker Street Bazaar near Portman Square. The backdrop was ski chalets and snow-capped mountains, the ‘ice’ was churned-up hogs’ lard and sulphur. On hot days it smelt of cheese. It closed in 1844.

2 The clown and the geese
In 1884, a clown called Barry was watched by a huge crowd as he sailed down the Thames from Vauxhall to Westminster in a washtub pulled by four geese.

3 One-legged cricket
In 1796, Montpelier Gardens in Walworth hosted a cricket match between eleven one-armed Greenwich pensioners and eleven one-legged Greenwich pensioners. Interest was so great that a fence was broken and spectators fell through a stable roof. The match was drawn, but the one-legged team won a replay, earning themselves 1,000 guineas.

4 London’s first public museum
This was opened in a coffee house near Chelsea Old Church in 1695 by James Salter, a former servant of Hans Sloane, the man whose collection later formed the British Museum. Sloane reputedly handed Salter – renamed Don Saltero – some of the less important of his 80,000 objects, including a giant’s tooth,  a necklace made of Job’s tears and a bonnet that belonged to Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister (it actually came from Bedford).

5 The Peace of 1814
On Monday August 1, 1814, London celebrated the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte with a series of festivities. It began with a balloon ascent at Green Park; the balloon was captured by the winds and sent towards the Estuary until the ballooneer cut a hole and landed on Mucking Marshes near Tilbury. Next came a miniature Battle of the Nile on the Serpentine, followed by a firework display in Green Park, for which John Nash had designed a new pagoda. Sadly this caught fire, killing two people. The crowd applauded, assuming it was all part of the fun.

All these came from Pleasures of London, a book available at the Museum of London bookshop for £30. It is my new favourite London book. It should have been published in 1992, but was delayed repeatedly and by the time it was published by the London Topographical Society in 2009 the authors, Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, had both died.

What the pair had created was an endlessly browsable book on all the fads and fancies that have occupied Londoners leisure since the Dark Ages, from Frost Fairs to black-faced minstrels, lidos to the Great Exhibition. There are brilliant throwaways  – such as those mentioned above – as well as short but thorough looks at things like music halls, pleasure gardens (which I still don’t get the point of), museums and the origins of sports like cricket, football and boxing.

Buy it.

Mucky pics in Victorian London

It can be hard to persuade people to visit historic houses, which makes you wonder why the owners of 18 Stafford Terrace don’t make more of the secrets that are hidden in the attic.

Stafford Terrace in Kensington is also known as Linley Sambourne’s House. Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch who bought the five-storey terrace in 1875 and decided to decorate it as fashionably as he could, along aesthetic principles. This meant much William Morris wallpaper and exotic furniture. The problem was, Sambourne was not a wealthy man, so he purchased the latter from house clearances and junk shops and to make the former go further, he would cut out bits of wallpaper that were hidden from sight behind paintings and furniture and use them to paper other parts of the house. And he had a lot of paintings and furniture.

When Sambourne died, his son kept it exactly as it had been left, as did the following generations, until Stafford Terrace, now essentially a time capsule of Victorian middle-class life, was purchased by the GLC.

And that is how it has remained. The house is now owned by Kensington & Chelsea and run by nearby Leighton House.  Visitors get to see inside a fascinating interior and learn about the fashions of the Victorian middle-class first-hand.

But there’s more.

Sambourne was a cartoonist, but he also developed an interest in photography. He realised that instead of drawing his caricatures from scratch, he could get people to assume certain positions, photograph them, and then sketch the results. In his backyard he would get the coach-driver to dress as the statue of Eros, or pretend himself to be a tennis player or Roman soldier, using props from around the house. Here’s an example.

But there’s more.

Sambourne also started a Camera Club. Here his subjects tended to be more specialist.

For some reason, Camera Club always took place when Sambourne’s wife was visiting friends in the country.

In the attic of 18 Stafford Terrace, on a very high shelf, are several unmarked volumes packed with this sort of photographic work. Some are displayed in the bathroom for public study.

Mocked up in the same attic room is a demonstration of how Sambourne worked. An easel contains a cartoon of three women on a bicycle, copied from an adjacent photograph of three women pretending to be on a bike. In the photograph, all the women are nude; not so in the cartoon.

But it doesn’t end there.

Sambourne would also take his camera out with him when he was in Hyde Park or mooching around Kensington, and take surreptitious images of passing nursemaids, which he would carefully file as ‘Zoological Studies’. He even purchased a special camera with a secret lens that took pictures at right-angles so his subjects would be completely unaware as to what was going on. He still received a number of warnings for his behaviour.

And he also liked to take pictures of his maid. In bed. Asleep.

There’s nothing quite as creepy as a middle-aged Victorian male, is there?

See also The Man From London and Virtual Victorian.