Charles Jennens: The man Behind Messiah at Handel House Museum

By Ben Miller | 28 November 2012
An image of a classic oil painting of an 18th century philanthropist wearing a green gown
Thomas Hudson, Charles Jennens (circa 1744). Oil on canvas© Handel House Collections Trust

Exhibition Preview: Charles Jennens: The man Behind Messiah, Handel House Museum, London, until April 14 2013

On one oracular on bygone English poetry, Charles Jennens is entertainingly described as a writer who was “ridiculously fond of show and pomp” from an early age, considering would-be Shakespeare commentators “mere twaddling antiquaries”.

His own editions of Shakespeare works – including Hamlet and Othello – drew sneers from a rival editor, George Steevens, whose subsequent slurs still amount to an assassination of Jennens’ character.

An image of a score for an oratorio written in black ink in London in the 18th century
The title page of the wordbook for Messiah (published 1743)
But whatever anyone said about this colourful arts patron, he’ll still go down as a key figure in the creation of Handel’s masterful Messiah, for which he is variously thought to have compiled the text of the libretto and suggested the drift of the oratorio.

That was the peak of a productive partnership with the composer, objectified in a score of the oratorio Saul which is autographed by the musical demigod here. In one of a series of letters, Handel even asks Jennens to be his temporary muse.

And the first exhibition to be devoted to the philanthropist pulls off the task of uniting every known portrait of the man, including a notable Thomas Hudson portrait already held by the museum and a depiction by Mason Chamberlin, one of the founder members of the Royal Academy.

“Jennens remains utterly unknown to the wider public,” rues Sarah Bardwell, the director of the museum.

“But in recent years there have been signs of his reputation reviving among scholars, and we hope to continue this.

“Jennens was a gifted and trusted collaborator, whose influence deserves recognition. A neat illustration of his hidden influence is the fact that in the authoritative Arden edition of Hamlet he is mentioned more than 30 times in footnotes.

“We’re hoping to save Jennens from being forever a footnote.”

A painting of Jacobson Gopsall Hall, on the 736-acre Leicestershire estate which the devout Protestant inherited from his father and filled with a huge picture collection and library, is certain to elicit envy.

Researchers think he might have been the owner of the first piano in England, but their investigations aren’t helped by his desire to remain private, leaving many of his creations anonymous or uncredited.

He was never paid by Hamlet, finding reward in the reflections of his feelings on religion, society and royalty expressed in his accomplice’s librettos.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 12pm-6pm Sunday and January 1, closed Monday and December 25-27, December 31). Admission £2-£6, free for under-5s, free for under-16s Saturday and Sunday. Follow the museum on Twitter @HandelHouse.

More pictures:

An image of a light orange monochrome profile portrait print of an 18th century man
Giles Hussey, Charles Jennens (1760s)© National Portrait Gallery, London
An image of a handwritten letter in black ink on white paper from the 18th century
George Frideric Handel's letter to Charles Jennens discussing his latest oratorio (1744)© The Handel House Collections Trust
An image of a portrait of an 18th century man in a posh robe within a golden circle
Thomas Hudson, George Frideric Handel (18th century). Oil on canvas© HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
An image of a score for a classical music piece written in black ink from the 18th century
Manuscript of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (published 1740), showing the opening of the aria As Steals the Morn© Gerald Coke Handel Collection, The Foundling Museum
An image of a landscape oil painting of the grounds of an 18th century mansion
Charles Jennens' home, Gopsall Hall. Attributed to Pieter Tillemans© Private Collection
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