Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Introducing Handel's friends - an encounter with Ellen T Harris

Ellen T. Harris - © Bryce Vickmark.
Ellen T. Harris - © Bryce Vickmark.
Ellen T Harris's book George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends came out earlier this year (see my review) and now Ellen Harris has transformed the book into an exhibition at the Handel House Museum in London. Running until Sunday 10 January 2016, the exhibition Handel: A Life with Friends offers new insight into Handel's life through his friends and neighbours in and around Mayfair via a combination of telling objects, documents, recordings and narrative. The result is a remarkably engaging and telling narrative which completely transforms the book and gives us a real sense of the community of friends in which Handel was situated. It is an exhibition full of intriguing, and interlinking, stories and telling objects, and I was lucky enough to be taken round by Ellen Harris.

Handel: A Life with Friends
It is very much a neighbourhood exhibition; as Ellen demonstrated in her book all of Handel's friends lived in close proximity and a map on the wall of the exhibition shows how close they all were. The exhibition rather aptly brings them all back into Handel's own house. One of the events linked to the exhibition is a walking tour round all the surviving areas. One house confused at first, as the address in Handel's will does not exist but Ellen discovered that the street had changed its name (Chapel Street has become Alford Street). The area now known as Mayfair was in the process of being built, most of the people in the exhibition moved into their houses as the first occupants. Ellen points out the house Mary Delany lived in when she was Mary Pendarves, and to which Handel came to play through the whole of Joseph to her!

We started with her showing me her favourite object in the exhibition. On the chimney piece in the first room is a painting by Hogarth, one of his family group conversation pieces The Wesley Family which depicts a family poised to start making music (see image below). Ellen loves the picture and explains eagerly that this is the first time the picture has been exhibited as it is kept at the Duke of Wellington's house, Stratfield Saye (the Duke is a direct descendant of the family depicted). The picture is important in Handel studies because one of those depicted is Anne Donnellan one of the friends in Ellen's book and here she is in the act of being about to sing. And Handel's friend Mary Delany watched it being painted and was so impressed that she started taking lessons from Hogarth (thankfully for Handel studies, Mary Delay was a prolific letter writer).

Ellen T Harris - George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends
Hogarth's picture of Anne Donnellan and
the Wesley family on the cover of
Ellen T Harris's book

Nearby in the exhibition there are panels devoted to Anne Donnellan and to Mary Delany and both include a picture of their houses which survive to this day. Below Anne Donnellan's panel is the largest object in the exhibition, a thick ledger from Gosling's Private Bank. Ellen explains that if you were rich, and especially if you were a woman, you had a private banker as he could go to the Bank of England for you to invest and trade. The bank was taken over by Barclays and thankfully they have preserved all the archives. The ledger is open at a page full of perfectly legible copper-plate handwriting (we pause to consider the Dickensian image of a clerk sitting all day writing such entries, Ellen likes to think of Bob Cratchett), and one entry shows Anne Donnellan paying Jacob Kirkman for a new harpsichord (9 guineas). We also have a letter from Mary Delany describing going to Anne Donnellan's to hear Handel try out the harpsichord for the first time. But more than that, the documents speak to each other and Ellen gleefully points out that they show that Anne Donnellan waited to pay for the harpsichord till after Handel had tried it out!

Mary Delany became well known for her paper cutout pictures, and there is one on display. It is an incredibly detailed assemblage of paper, each detail cut out separately and this labour of love was only started when she was in her 70's (she completed 980 of a planned 1000 and they are now all in the British Library). This botanical interest came about because she was in the circle of the Duchess of Portland and we see photographs of a friendship box which contains images of a young Mary Delany (most pictures of her date from her fame in her 70's) with the Duchess of Portland, Lady Andover and Elizabeth Montague (the box  is in a private collection in the USA) but was owned by the Duchess of Portland. Ellen calls it an extraordinary object (easier to understand in photograph than in reality) which she has only actually seen once. There is also a miniature of Anne Donnellan by Rupert Barber (who live on the Delany estates in Dublin for a while). Anne Donnellan also owned one by Barber of Handel which as now been lost.

Mary Delany - Aeschelus Hippocastum (Horse Chestnut), 1776 - (c) The Trustees of the British Museum
Mary Delany
Aeschelus Hippocastum (Horse Chestnut), 1776
(c) The Trustees of the British Museum
Next to this corner devoted to Anne Donnellan and Mary Delany, there is Elizabeth Palmer. We know far less about her, but she was the daughter of servants (though she had money) and Robert Palmer only married her after his father died. (The marriage announcement is reproduced and it makes no bones about her lack of lineage, referring only to her fortune). Ralph Palmer's uncle, Lord Verney, was furious about the marriage and wrote a note about it on the back of a letter. This survives and is in the exhibition, coming from the collection of the Verney family and it is a remarkable object. Lord Verney's paragraph not only tells of Elizabeth Palmer's humble origins but Ellen gleefully points out that Verney has written round a hole in the paper, splitting words as necessary.

On Ralph Palmer's early death, Elizabeth sold much of his collection and some of the books were bought back by Lord Verney who then proceeded to try and scrape the words Biblioteca Palmeriana from the fly leaf (and risking leaving a hole); such was his fury.

All Handel's friends were very musical, and Elizabeth Mayne started writing a collection of music manuscripts at the age of nine (beautifully inscribed with her name, in Gothic script). Dating from later is a book of keyboard transcriptions of Purcell, and you can see the music and listen to it being played. Ellen warns me that this is a confusing experience as the manuscript, though clear, is written in a different style to what we are used to including using 6 line staves.


Elizabeth Legh was the first person to collect manuscripts of Handel's music and these were assembled in stunning leather bound volumes. The one on display has an arrangement of an aria from Teseo but transposed down in a way which does not work with the orchestra version. This was made specifically so that Elizabeth Legh could sit at her keyboard and accompany herself. Mary Delany writes of Handel's harpsichord suites, and these were in fact published and supervised by Handel (he didn't supervise all his published music) and the results are stunning (you can also listen to these).

Handel also collected music, not just his own. We read of people being on the subscription lists for publication of Handel's music, but he subscribed to other people's publications and there is an example of this in the exhibition. Ellen comments that she does not know where he put it all, as the sheer volume of his own scores and parts, plus those of others must have been substantial. He must have been organised, he kept going back to his own manuscripts using the latest score as a starting point for any new changes and re-using music from his Italian cantatas well into the 1740's (so the manuscripts must have travelled with him from Italy to Hanover and from Hanover to London). Handel is in fact the first composer for whom we have a significant number of autograph scores.

James Hunter was the third son of a well to do Huguenot family, he married without permission when he was 17 (and probably lied about his age) and became a trader in the City. Becoming bankrupt (something which was only allowed City traders, everyone else was sent to debtors prison), he found other jobs. One of these was as a scribe for Handel, and thanks to Hunter's handwriting on his will (which is in the exhibition) Ellen has identified him as S7 in the list of Handel's scribes and on display is a his only full score, that of Samson open at Micah's aria about male friendship (and you can listen to it too). Hunter copied scores for both the Granville and Lennard collections and Ellen thinks that the Lennard collection of Handel scores may have actually been Hunter's own.

When Hunter got himself back on his feet he bought a dye-works in East London and the fire insurance certificate describes the premises in great detail (in tiny handwriting), which shows that the house was cheek by jowl with the dye works by the river Lee. Dating from 1890 is a lovely watercolour by AG Stout of a derelict dye works at Old Ford which, if it isn't Hunter's is in fact very similar.  AG Stout seems to have been a carpenter who went about doing watercolours of old buildings in his spare time.

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy
Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy
James Hunter and Joseph Goupy seem to have been Handel's closest friends. Joseph Goupy was a painter and was in fact in Rome at the same time as Handel in 1708 and worked for the same patrons. Their work went in parallel for many years, until the 1730's and even in the 1740's friends worried about the pair going on the razzle rather than Handel being sensible and recovering from his first major illness. We know Goupy mainly from the image he created after the break with Handel. This seems to have come about because Goupy was asked by the Middlesex Company to intercede with Handel and get him to write an opera for them. Handel said no, but gave permission to use another, and then promptly wrote (and performed) Semele and then Hercules which are operas in all but name. Relations with Goupy never recovered and his image of Handel as pig playing the organ and trampling on friendship bears a striking resemblance to the text of an air in Handel's next oratorio, Belshazzar (which you can listen to in the exhibition). So that we don't think of Goupy just in this way and get a sense of him as a real artist, there is also the word-book from Riccardo Primo listing him as the scene painter, and a reproduction of one of his pictures as he was famous for doing copies of old masters.

The subject of Goupy brings us to the issue of sex. Ellen comments that in her previous book (Handel as Orpheus) on Handel's Italian cantatas and his stay in Italy, she had been castigated for the amount of sexual relations (notably homosexual ones) she brought in, whereas in this new book there have been complaints about the lack of information. She has no axe to grind, whether Handel was homosexual or heterosexual does not specifically matter to her, but what does matter is reflecting the documents accurately. And whilst the Italian stay generated a lot of suggestive material, for London there is none except for Goupy's potential involvement in an apparent blackmail scam which may be linked to homosexual circles. The possibilities are tantalising, but they remain only that.

One of the things which tied the men together was art collecting. Ralph Palmer's collection included a Rembrandt which is now in New York (and displayed in reproduction). Two generations of the Houlditch family copied auction catalogues and included the names of those who bought the paintings. From these we can get a real sense of who bought what, and who was in the room the whom. Not only is there Handel and his friends going to auctions together, but at one point the very young Joshua Reynolds is in the room with Handel, two of the greatest artists of the 18th century as Ellen points out.

There are two further men linked to Handel, both of whom lived in and around Bond Street near Handel's house. Benjamin Martyn was a playwright and secretary and it seems as if Handel was using him as a general manager when he went blind. James Smyth was a perfumer, 'At the Sign of the Civet Cat' in New Bond Street. His sign survives and is displayed in a handsome reproduction. He was the last known person to be with Handel before his death, Ellen points out that there was a great deal that a perfumer could do in a sick room to alleviate the various smells.

What this area of the exhibition gives us is a real sense of the community around Bond Street in which Handel was living, with some lovely images of Handel popping into peoples houses, playing their harpsichords (something that continued even after he was blind), advising them on buying instruments, giving previews of his new work and sometimes living it up with Goupy and friends.

This was in fact the first exhibition that Ellen Harris has curated, and she clearly loved doing it, particularly the way the various objects speak to each other so that the exhibition is far more than a transcript of the book.  It is a surprisingly visual exhibition (before seeing it I had worried it would be too wordy, but it certainly is not) and some of the objects displayed are really telling pieces. And it is an aural one too, there are lots of opportunities to hear the music being depicted and I plan to return and write about this aspect at greater length.

Ellen hopes that visiting the exhibition will encourage people to explore further and read the book.. The exhibition was done as a collaboration with Martin Wyatt of the Handel House Museum with Ellen (who is based in Boston) sending Martin lists of desirable objects. Whilst there are many generous loans, other things are seen in photographic images which ensures we have a good spread.

On our way out, I ask what she is working on next and she tells me that she is planning a 30th anniversary revision of her book on Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. There has been a great deal more scholarship done since it was first issued in the 1980's, and rather ironically the results are that we know less for certain. In the 1980's people assumed that because only one libretto survived from the 17th century that must have been the first performance but less is certain now. So the new version of the book will have to be very different, offering possibilities rather than certainties.

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