London museums unite to celebrate the life and work of Handel

By Rebecca Lucas | 17 April 2009
Handel's signature

Picture courtesy Handel House Museum

Exhibition: Handel the Philanthropist, Foundling Museum London, until June 28 2009, Handel Reveal’d, Handel House Museum, London, until October 25 2009, Musical Notes and Bank Notes, Bank of England Museum, London (permanent display).

April 14th was the 250th anniversary of Handel's death and, to commemorate this, museums across London are playing host to exhibitions celebrating the extraordinary life and times of the iconic Baroque composer.

When the German born Handel came to Britain in 1712, he brought with him a legacy that still fascinates scholars and the public alike today. He single handedly introduced Italian opera to London and transformed the music scene of his day. When he died in 1759, Handel’s success meant he left the modern equivalent of £1.7 million in assets.

The Handel Revealed exhibition at Handel House Museum displays artefacts from the composer’s private and personal life in the apt setting of Handel’s London home, where he lived for the last 36 years of his life. Amongst the exhibits is the infamous Charming Brute, or ‘Pig at the Piano’ caricature, by Handel’s former friend Joseph Goupy.

The artwork, which has been open to all sorts of interpretation over the years, represents a less flattering side to Handel’s persona - depicting as a gluttonous, vain pig. The text at the bottom, ‘I am myself alone’ is a revealing nod to how Handel was also, in many ways, a fairly lonesome figure throughout his life, never marrying or fathering any children.

A picture of a drawing of a pig at a piano

The Charming Brute. Picture © Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum

The exhibition is also home to a life mask of the composer by French sculptor Roubiliac, regarded as being the clearest indication of Handel’s appearance towards the later part of his life.

"This has now been dismissed due to the robustness of his face," says exhibition Director Martin Wyatt. "When Handel died he was really quite ill and had suffered a number of ailments, including blindness and seizures."

The museum also has a couching needle on display, used by 18th century eye doctors on patients (including Handel) to treat what they could only predict were cataracts. The rather gruesome treatment, which involved scratching the patient's cornea without anesthetic, was a common and often deadly procedure.

It is telling that fellow composer Bach, who was also treated in this way, died after suffering an appalling infection in his eyes.

The unfinished original manuscript of Handel's final work, Jeptha, is also on show, complete with a composer’s note to self. "Handel writes how he cannot continue with the piece," observes Martin. "By this time, the sight in his left eye had become too bad."

It is a significant and touching detail that this note is written in Handel's native German, despite his relocation to England several decades beforehand.

A picture of a life mask of Handel

Life mask of Handel by Roubiliac. Picture © MF Barrett

Away from his private side, Handel the businessman is depicted through the exhibit's signed stock ledger from 1749, on loan from the Bank of England. A skilled market dabbler, Handel's nous is exemplified by his swift purchase and sale of the South Sea Stock, escaping with profit before its notorious collapse in 1720.

Over at the Bank of England Museum, a display entitled Musical Notes and Bank Notes includes a transfer book featuring Handel's finances. "The fact that we have Handel's signature here shows that the great man himself actually popped in to do his business," says the Museum's Chris Shadforth.

These financial artefacts act as a record of the comparative success and failure of Handel's operatic and oratorio seasons, spending excess funds on stock.

The 250th year since Handel's death also coincides with the same anniversary of the £10 note, which comprises the other half of the museum's current display.

A picture of a bank transfer book showing Handel's signature

Picture courtesy Handel House Museum

Yet another side to the composer's complex character is dealt with in the Handel the Philanthropist exhibition at The Foundling Museum. Handel was a charitable man and one of the main benefactors of the Foundling Hospital, Britain's first home for abandoned and illegitimate babies.

Handel raised money for the hospital by giving annual performances of the Messiah in the hospital chapel, and intricate engravings depicting these occasions feature. The beautiful hand-drawn tickets from the Messiah concerts are also on show.

Handel also made the Hospital a beneficiary of his will, a copy of which, showing his donation to the hospital, is on display here.

As well as being involved with this charity, Handel also favoured the peculiarly named Fund for Decay'd Musicians, now known as the Royal Society of Musicians. Set up in 1738, the charity aimed to help the widows and children of musicians who had died and left their families penniless.

Co-curator Colin Coleman calls the collective, which counted a significant number of foreigners and Catholics among its ranks, as "a very inclusive group in 18th century philanthropy."

A Declaration of Trust signed by all 228 of the participating musicians is on show, starring the signatures of Handel and Tenor John Beard, who sang in many of the early performances of Handel’s oratorios and whose portrait by Thomas Hudson hangs in the exhibition.

Upstairs in the museum, visitors can take advantage of musical chairs with built-in speakers to listen to some of Handel's greatest works whilst surrounded by some of his official manuscripts. It's an evocative Handel experience.

For more information visit Handel House Museum, The Foundling Museum and The Bank of England Museum.

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