God rot Tunbridge Wells! Handel and the Occulist

Handel portrait

George Frideric Handel

We love culture in Tunbridge Wells. Galleries, art centre, music venues – we can’t get enough. So, it’s with a hushed tone that I ask, did one of the greatest composers of his age, George Frideric Handel eventually meet his demise because of a charlatan eye doctor in Tunbridge Wells?

1735 was a good year for Tunbridge Wells. Richard ‘Beau’ Nash arrived in the town and managed its summer entertainments. It was also the year that Handel took a trip down from London to Tunbridge Wells, for the first of many visits.

The drinking of the spa waters might have attracted earlier health tourists in the late 1600s but it was the good company and entertainment that brought high society and Handel to the town over the summer months. Handel visited and dined with nearby friends in Kent, and kept company with fellow musicians, with many private concerts being promoted by Nash. It was also during this time, Handel purportedly had a run-in with Tunbridge Wells’ Ladies’ Music Society and was to have exclaimed, God Rot Tunbridge Wells! A slogan that somehow hasn’t caught on in local tourism literature.

Towards the end of his life Handel was in poor health and experiencing nervous disorders and failing eyesight but found seclusion away from London, back in Tunbridge Wells.

Enter: the flamboyant oculist, John ‘the Chevalier’ Taylor. Was he a charlatan and quack medicine man? 18th century medicine is generally objectionable to modern sensibilities, with its blood letting and purgative treatments. However, Taylor was also undoubtedly a showman and cute self-promoter who knew how to both announce his arrival in a wagon painted with a giant eye, and make a hasty exit:

He practiced in the most flamboyant way, drawing crowds to watch procedures in the town square – and then getting out of town before the patients took their bandages off…

John Chevalier Taylor

John ‘Chevalier’ Taylor

In 1758, both Handel and Taylor were in Tunbridge Wells. The [really, really, terrible] poem, On the Recovery of the Sight of The Celebrated Mr Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor, dated Tunbridge Wells 15 August 1758, was printed and also published in the London Chronicle on 24 August. The poem is stuffed full of classical allusions and proclamations of Taylor’s greatness, culminating in him single-handedly restoring Handel’s eyesight.

handel

Courtesy: U.S. National Library of Medicine

There is no other evidence to support that Taylor did actually operate on Handel, apart from this poem. At any rate, Handel’s eyesight did not recover and he died after his surgery with what was described as a painful eye condition.

Without a post mortem it’s impossible to say if Taylor’s treatment did in fact kill Handel. Interestingly, Taylor allegedly went on to treat the composer Johann Sebastian Bach who also died with an eye complaint. Maybe we should focus on the fact that Handel was a repeat visitor of the town, even becoming a donor to King Charles the Martyr chapel in 1755, and it was the good company, musical diversions and seclusion from London that kept him coming back, not the dodgy, potential fatal medical treatments?

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