Jimi Hendrix's Electric Fireplace at 23 Brook Street, London

Hiya, I’m Laurie, a volunteer at Handel and Hendrix in London. So the object I’ve chosen to talk about might seem like a strange choice on the face of it – it’s the electric fireplace in the Hendrix flat. Tis is not because I think the electric fireplace is a stunning work of art or craftmanship or anything – it’s an electric fireplace, they’re generally regarded these days as, maybe naff is a bit harsh, but certainly a thing that people ‘used’ to have. (Although my 94-year old gran still has one. She has that much in common with Jimi Hendrix.) I’ve chosen the electric fireplace because it tells you a lot about the kind of place this flat was, it provides insight into both Hendrix’s tastes but also his external circumstances. There’s a lot of objects in the room that are unmistakeably ‘Hendrix’, so I wanted to focus on one that you might well have found in many other bedsit flats in the 1960s. I think more than any other object in the room, the fireplace shows off the normality of the flat, the fact that underneath all these definitively ‘Hendrix’ aesthetics lie quite a lot of typical elements of a 1960s bedsit. I’m always interested by the reaction from many visitors to the flat, and how evocative they find it in this way. A lot of the time these visitors are of a certain vintage, and it evokes times and places they actually remember, but not always; I was born quite some time after the 60s ended and I’ve always got a really strong sense from the flat that this is what it was like for a lot of people. So the fireplace is a good object to pull us back down to earth for a bit.

So Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham stayed here during the winter of 1968 to 69, which was a bitterly cold one, and of course this fireplace was one of the primary sources of heat, alongside a number of other free-standing radiators. The original 18th century fireplace had been covered over, but clearly Jimi and Kathy still wanted a fireplace, and it’s elements like this that transformed what might have been quite a poky room when they first moved in into something cosier. What this suggests to me is that despite the fact that this is a room that flies in the face of tradition and convention in some ways, for example there are no tables for eating or otherwise, it’s quite established and conventional in others – that sort of almost ancient idea that a fireplace is a focal point of the room, despite the fact the actual heat it was giving off was supplemented by other sources. And it still gives the room a very cosy feel when the nights draw in in winter, helped of course by all the very warm colours in the rest of the room. It’s one of those elements in the flat that suggests Hendrix was really looking for a home, and a bit of permanence and stability, when he moved in – not simply another place to crash in between the rest of his relentless schedule.

The other thing about the fireplace and its kind of surprising mundanity is that it’s a reminder that this was an era way before megastar musicians and the world of beachside villas, tennis courts, private jets, all those other trappings of wealth. I think it’s interesting to speculate over whether Hendrix, had he lived to today, would have embraced that world at all – he almost certainly would have been able to afford it. But the trend of his own time period, without wanting to idealise it too much compared to today, was broadly very much not for conspicuous consumption, it was for the opposite, it was for demonstrating you didn’t really care so much about those things. That said, in Hendrix’s time we were certainly entering into the era when musicians, or those musicians based in Britain anyway, started living in mansions or large townhouses – John Lennon, for me, is the classic example, living in a very large house in Weybridge in Surrey, not even in London. By comparison to that, although 23 Brook St was in Mayfair, the heart of wealthy London, it occupied just one, rented, upper portion of a building, with a small number of quite small rooms. And an electric fireplace, which I somehow doubt that someone like, I dunno, Axl Rose or Jay-Z own. I don’t know, they might?

Yeah, so, I do like this fireplace because it is so quaint and so seemingly incongruous with the popular impression of Jimi Hendrix. “Let me stand next to your electric fireplace”, “Have you ever been to electric fireplace land” – they don’t have quite the same ring to them. I think that’s doubly important when it comes to talking about Hendrix – mostly due to the briefness of his career and his early death he remains quite a distant, untouchable figure, more so I think than most 20th century musical icons. He seemed to be aware even at the time that I think he was becoming more icon than man. So to some it might come as a real shock I think to see the modest size of 23 Brook Street, and all these kind of, what are for me anyway, quite obvious period features like the fireplace. They provide just that little bit of context, and a reminder that every individual, no matter how exceptional and extraordinary they are and how much they might go beyond their own time, they’re also bound to it and a product of it just as much. So yeah, that’s my maybe slightly unexpected object, and thanks for listening.