History in Structure

The David Parr House

A Grade II* Listed Building in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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Latitude: 52.2 / 52°12'0"N

Longitude: 0.1389 / 0°8'20"E

OS Eastings: 546274

OS Northings: 257911

OS Grid: TL462579

Mapcode National: GBR L7H.5XR

Mapcode Global: VHHK3.CY9V

Plus Code: 9F42642Q+2H

Entry Name: The David Parr House

Listing Date: 4 August 2020

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1470294

Also known as: 186 Gwydir Street
David Parr House

ID on this website: 101470294

Location: Romsey Town, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB1

County: Cambridgeshire

District: Cambridge

Electoral Ward/Division: Petersfield

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Cambridge

Traditional County: Cambridgeshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cambridgeshire

Tagged with: Museum Terrace house


Small terraced house, built in the mid-1870s by George Cooper, lived in and painted by the artisan decorator David Parr from 1886 to 1927.


Small terraced house, built in the mid-1870s by George Cooper, lived in and painted by the artisan decorator David Parr from 1886 to 1927.

MATERIALS: brown brick laid in Flemish bond with lime mortar pointing. Brick dressings and a roof covering of slate.

PLAN: the house is in a row of small terraced housing on the east side of Gwydir Street. It has a narrow rectangular plan consisting of a hallway giving access to two reception rooms and a kitchen in a rear projection, followed by a scullery and WC in a lean-to. The first floor has two bedrooms at the front and one at the rear, the bathroom above the kitchen having been converted from a bedroom.

EXTERIOR: the two-storey, two-bay house has a pitched roof and a wide chimney stack with eight clay pots over the ridge on the right hand side. The original guttering is embellished by lions’ heads. The paint scheme, redone during the conservation project, is based on the colours recorded by Parr in 1914. The white-painted front door in the left hand bay has four panels, the upper two glazed, and a lunette overlight. The door is set under a round stone arch with a prominent keystone and is decorated on its inner edge in dogtooth. The brick jambs either side are painted in bright red. To the right, and in the two first-floor bays, are two-over-two-pane horned sash windows, reconditioned and painted mustard yellow with red jambs. The upper edges are decorated in dogtooth whilst the ogee lintels are painted in stone colour.

The colour scheme on the rear elevation recreates that from the mid-C20. The lower half of the walls is painted white and the window frames are cream with Brunswick green. The first bay is lit on both floors by two-over-two-pane horned sash windows under segmental gauged brick arches. The two-storey projection, which houses the kitchen, has on the left return a four-panel door and a window on each floor to the right. A single-storey lean-to against the rear of the projection, built by Parr as the scullery and WC, has a slate-clad roof. It is lit on the front by a window with leaded lights and on the left return by a window with opaque glass bricks, probably inserted around the mid-C20.

INTERIOR: the decorative schemes and built-in furniture carried out by Parr remain largely intact, as does much of the original joinery, fixtures and fittings. This includes the four-panel doors, window furniture, bedroom fireplaces, cornices and skirting boards, along with items such as the coat hooks in the hallway.

The wall and ceiling patterns painted by Parr are adaptations of the schemes he executed professionally for F R Leach, which in turn were based on a revival initiated by Bodley and his circle of the medieval technique of decorating walls in imitation of textile patterns. In his notebook, Parr often refers to ‘ornament’ and ‘diaper’ (a repeating geometrical or floral pattern) to describe the patterns he painted. He used a technique called ‘pouncing’ (in which F R Leach specialised), a sort of tracing technique using semi-transparent paper pricked with holes that are dabbed with powder to transfer designs to walls, that was then followed with careful free-hand painting.

In the hallway, the lunette above the door, which is likely to have been designed by F R Leach, contains a roundel with a naturalistic depiction of a singing bird in a wood, surrounded by leaded lights painted in a stylised foliage pattern. The lower two-thirds of the walls are painted on canvas in a pattern of curving stalks and blossoming motifs using deep russet and gold tones, referencing the designs of Pugin and Morris & Co. On the left wall, immediately inside the front door, is a section of Walton Lincrusta in the form of linenfold panelling, most likely an off-cut from one of Parr’s jobs. As part of the conservation project, one of the panels was reproduced as the original had cracked. Further along this wall, Parr incorporated his own looped intertwined initials in the wall pattern. Above the dado, the original scheme has been covered in magnolia emulsion but where this has been removed it reveals a freer-form foliage design which recalls Morris’s ‘Willow’ pattern. The swirling pattern on the ceiling, probably given to Parr at work, is an early example of Anaglypta, a lighter, more flexible version of Lincrusta, developed in 1887. The original linoleum floor covering contained asbestos and has been replaced.

The drawing room is the pièce de résistance, containing an all-over pattern in a variety of scales and designs, with predominant tones of dark green and yellows, from orange to gold, which combine in a sumptuous intensity. The walls beneath the dado have a very large-scale leaf design, whilst above a more intricate pattern (again large-scale but less so) of interwining stylised flora and foliage is threaded by several inscriptions running around the room in scrolls painted to suggest a three-dimensional form. This principal pattern bears close comparison with Morris & Co.’s design for the window embrasures in Old Swan House in Chelsea which F R Leach had executed. The scroll to the left of the window reads: ‘If you do anything, do it well.’ Beginning from the right of the window and continuing along the top of the side and back walls, is a popular verse thought to be taken from Sunderland lusterware: ‘Swiftly see each moment flies see and learn be timely wise, every moment shortens day every pulse beats life away thus our heaving breath wafts us on to certain death. Seize the moments as they fly, know to live and learn to die.’ This is followed by a quote from the C17 Anglican priest and poet George Herbert: ‘He who knows nothing doubts nothing.’ The side wall to the left of the door features an inscription from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘Tongues in trees, books in running brooks, Sermons in stones and good in everything.’ The final inscription on the lower portion of the back wall features a line from a popular Victorian hymn ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’: ‘Now the Love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.’ Two small areas of decoration to the left and right of the window have been repainted after being lost to damp damage. The large-scale foliate design on the ceiling in green, yellow and gold with a central orange flower, was inspired by another Morris & Co. design used for the ceiling in the Ambassador’s Room at St James’s Palace. The inner face of the door was grained by Parr to look like oak and the moulding of the panels painted in Abyssinian gold leaf. Parr applied Anaglypta flowers and Abyssinian gold leaf to the simple wooden fireplace surround. The tiled inset was put in around the mid-C20, and the wall paper on the chimney breast is not original to Parr’s era.

The inspiration for the painted scheme in the dining room is not known but it is similar to the medieval or Renaissance silks that inspired Bodley. The pattern above the dado consists of vertical scrolls intertwined with large leaves in bright green and red on a white background. Parr records in his notebook the colours used for the frieze (taken from a Morris & Co. design): ‘the yellow of Stalk is ochre with a touch of mineral green. The light Red is Indian red thinning. The blue ground is Turquoise & permanent White with a touch of Prussian…’. Below, the dado is hand-grained wood on the back window wall but grained plaster on the other walls. The original wooden fireplace surround survives but the tiled inset dates to the mid-C20 and the wallpaper above it to the 1960s. Parr built a fitted bureau into the alcove on the right of the chimneypiece and a full-height cupboard in the alcove to the left. The original curtain pole remains and the linoleum dates to the 1920s.

In the kitchen, Parr painted the chimney breast in the1920s in a delicate design of blue flowers with willow-type leaves. It is not known if he put in the cupboards flanking the chimney breast but he did paint them red on the inside and blue on the outside, although they have since been painted in a cream colour. The stained glass in a swirling yellow foliate design, fitted into the lower half of the sash window, is in the style of F R Leach. The red quarry-tiled floor is original and the coal-fired oven is thought to have been built into the wall in the 1920s. Parr brought the outside WC into the lean-to in the 1890s and it retains its original lavatory with square wooden seat.

The straight flight of stairs has been regrained in accordance with the work Parr recorded in his notebook: the stairs to look like oak and the handrail and banister like mahogany. The decorative wall pattern from the hallway is continued up the stairs and along the dado on the landing.

The painted decoration in the back bedroom, directly above the dining room, is nearly identical to that used in the dining room. The frieze below the dado is made of Anaglypta. Parr created the shallow relief panels on the ceiling by using strips of felt decorated with Anaglypta flowers at the intersections. The small round-arch cast-iron grate is set within a plain wooden surround embellished by Parr along the frieze with four medieval moulding profiles in the form of stylised foliage and flowers. The cupboard and washstand flanking the fireplace were made elsewhere but installed by Parr. The linoleum was laid in the Edwardian era.

The two bedrooms and lobby at the front of the house were created out of one larger bedroom by Parr. They retain their original linoleum and wallpaper from around the 1940s, and the larger room has a small C19 fireplace with a round-arch insert. Parr added the Anaglypta swags around the frieze of the lobby but he died before he could finish decorating the two bedrooms. The smaller one has a hand-painted inscription in large letters along the top of the wall reading: ‘May I always be ready when my Saviour calleth me. May I in sight of heaven rejoice, when I hear my Saviour’s voice.’

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the brick coal bunker, built against the rear lean-to by Parr, originally had a slate-clad roof but this has since been replaced with corrugated iron.

The simple iron railings along the south and east sides of the garden are original and were made by a firm in East Road. The railings at the front of the house were removed during the Second World War and have been replaced by a low brick wall.


David Parr (1854-1927) was an artisan decorator working in the late C19 and early C20. He was born in Chesterton, just outside Cambridge, but was effectively orphaned after his mother, a teacher, died of phthisis in 1860, and his father, a labourer, went to prison in 1858 after stealing a pig under the influence of alcohol. The later part of Parr’s childhood is thought to have been spent under the care of his uncle, a Cambridge-based cask-maker. He trained first as a joiner and then in 1871, at the age of 17, he began a four-year apprenticeship ‘to learn the art of painting and decorating’ with the Cambridge firm of decorative painters, F R Leach, one of the many firms that rose to national prominence as a result of the renaissance of crafts encouraged by the Gothic Revival.

Frederick Leach (1837-1904) began his career as apprentice to a stonemason before working alongside his elder brother in his painting and decorating business. In 1862, aged 25 and with a £300 loan from family and friends, he set up his own business in City Road. Frederick expanded from house and shop painting into ecclesiastical and civic arts, crafts and decoration, working in partnership with some of the country’s best known designers and architects, notably William Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement; George Bodley, the Gothic Revival architect; and Charles Kempe, the stained-glass artist. One of Parr’s earliest experiences with the firm was at Bodley’s All Saints’ Church, the most celebrated Victorian church in Cambridge. High up on a wall near the west window, the painters responsible inscribed their names and, among them, is ‘David Parr’ with the date 1871.

Other examples of work carried out by Leach’s team of craftsmen survive throughout Cambridge, such as the decoration of the nave and transept roof of Jesus College Chapel, which was their first commission for Bodley and Morris. At St Botolph’s Church, the firm decorated the chancel roof, and a commission for painting and stained glasswork at Queens’ Old Hall included 885 lead castings gilded for decoration. Between 1871 and 1881 Leach more than doubled the firm’s workforce to meet growing demand for their detailed and high quality interiors, undertaking some impressive commissions, such as decorating the Morris-designed staircase of St James’s Palace in London. The firm’s trade cards and accounts book reveal that its reputation spread far and wide, and Parr’s working life took him all over the country, involving him in some of the most accomplished ecclesiastical design and domestic decoration being carried out in Britain at the time.

It was while working at Hare Hill House, near Macclesfield in Cheshire, that Parr first met Mary Jane Wood, a cotton weaver from the nearby village of Bollington, whom he married in 1883. In 1886 Parr bought 186 Gwydir Street in Cambridge where they spent the rest of their lives and raised three children, Mary, David and Sarah. The house was in Gothic Terrace, built ten years earlier as part of a mini-development by George Cooper, a wine importer. Although the house was small – consisting of the typical Victorian layout of two ground-floor rooms and three bedrooms with a kitchen and scullery at the back – it was on the more prosperous side of the street, a status marked externally by a small front garden. Parr then spent the next four decades transforming his modest house into what has been called an ‘architectural self-portrait’, adapting the beautiful and intricate designs he executed professionally in churches and grand mansions. He carefully recorded in a ‘house notebook’ the cost of materials and the length of time he took to carry out particular elements of the schemes, which suggests that he may also have used the house as a testing ground to help him cost his professional work, and as a place to experiment with techniques and materials.

The sequence of Parr’s projects began with the entrance hall in 1887-1888. The upper walls here were finished in 1891. The drawing room ceiling was painted in 1892-1893, and the dining room acquired a dado of Gothic ornaments in the same painting campaign. The next major phase was the dado of the entrance hall, staircase, and landing in 1909-1910. The most impressive and complex scheme, the walls of the drawing room, were completed in 1912-1913, and the diaper dado was finished in 1916. In the same year the inscription in the smallest front bedroom was also completed. The final recorded design was Parr’s blue flower pattern in the kitchen in 1920.

Parr continued to work for Leach until the last years of his life, enrolling his son into the business in the early 1900s. When he died in 1927, his granddaughter Elsie Palmer moved into 186 Gwydir Street where she remained for the rest of her life, bringing up her family there and preserving her grandfather’s legacy. She was reluctant to paint over any of his work but she did make some concessions in the 1950s. The fireplaces installed by Parr in the drawing and dining rooms were replaced (the wooden surrounds were retained), and the back bedroom was converted into a bathroom. Some of Parr’s ornamental work on the entrance hall and staircase walls, above the dado rail, was painted in magnolia – presumably to let more light in – and an area of the drawing room wall damaged by damp was painted in bright green gloss paint.

After Elsie’s death in 2013, 186 Gwydir Street was bought (by prior agreement) by a social historian who had first come across it in 2009. The house was transferred to a charitable trust, created to preserve the fragile interiors and show to the public what is now known as The David Parr House. In 2017 a Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled a two-phase conservation plan to repair the damp damage, and then to restore and conserve the decoration. This included replacing the cement pointing with lime mortar, repairing the guttering and pipework, taking out and refurbishing the windows, and redoing the external paintwork. Inside, once the friable plasterwork had been replaced, the paintwork was meticulously cleaned and the small sections of the pattern-work lost to damp next to the windows of the drawing and dining rooms were reconstructed by an expert paint restorer. The stairs were regrained, and in the hallway, a cracked panel of Lincrusta (a deeply embossed and durable wallcovering invented by Frederick Walton in 1877) was repaired by experts who remade the mould in order to reproduce the panel.

Reasons for Listing

The David Parr House, 186 Gwydir Street, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* it is an extraordinary and unique example of the exquisite work of an artisan decorator adapted from bold, monumental designs for a smaller domestic scale. The painted decoration is meticulously detailed and executed to the highest standard, and nothing else like it is known to survive elsewhere;

* it is a physical manifestation of the renaissance of crafts encouraged by the Gothic Revival and later the Arts and Crafts movement with its emphasis on the connection between the artisan and their craft, a bond that was being destroyed by industrial manufacturing;

* it is associated with F R Leach & Sons, for whom Parr worked, a highly regarded firm of artist workmen whose domestic output has virtually disappeared as later fashions replaced the Gothic revival designs, but whose work survives in prestigious ecclesiastical buildings in Cambridge and throughout the country.

Historic interest:

* it is very well-preserved, the painted decoration surviving with a high level of survival, along with items of joinery designed and built by Parr, and many historic features including the original curtain rails, the late C19 WC and the 1920s oven, altogether providing an almost complete picture of a house of this period;

* it is very well documented thanks to the notebook in which Parr carefully recorded his work, providing a comprehensive and invaluable archive of the building;

* its survival and preservation is an important step in recognising and celebrating the work of largely overlooked but highly talented painters and craftsmen who have been overshadowed by the renown of figures such as Morris and Bodley, whose designs they brought to life.

Group value:

* its historic and architectural interest is enhanced by its important connection and group value with 3 St Mary’s Passage, the Cambridge showroom of F R Leach, which is listed at Grade II.

External Links

External links are from the relevant listing authority and, where applicable, Wikidata. Wikidata IDs may be related buildings as well as this specific building. If you want to add or update a link, you will need to do so by editing the Wikidata entry.

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