The amazing David Parr House

At 8pm on Channel Four tomorrow night (and on All 4 on demand after that: series 11, episode 6) ‘George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces’ features the David Parr House, Cambridge. It’s a lovely programme, and the presenter George Clarke is clearly overwhelmed to discover – in an ordinary-seeming terraced house on Gwydir St – a brilliant portal into the Arts & Crafts world. This unique Cambridge gem was created through the painstaking skill and artistry of one amazing man, David Parr.

David Parr (1854/5-1927) was a working-class Victorian who was apprenticed by the Cambridge firm of artworkmen, F. R. Leach & Sons in the late 1860s. For the next twenty years, Parr would learn his many artistic skills by painting the interiors of grand houses and churches with designs created by some of the best architects and designers in the country, including George Frederick Bodley and William Morris. (See also my previous blogpost ‘A great deal of taste: Mr Leach’s houses’.)

In 1886, with Leach’s help, Parr bought a small terraced house near the railway station in Cambridge and for the next forty years he would decorate his home in the manner of the grand Arts & Crafts interiors he knew well, creating hand-painted, intricate wall decoration, Gothic carvings and stained glass panels. It’s astonishing to think that he did all this detailed, jewel-like work by candlelight and oil lamps; the house was never fitted with gas lighting. But it was also a family home, where Parr and his wife Mary-Ellen raised their three children.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the David Parr House is that it was lovingly preserved by one woman, the Parrs’ granddaughter, Elsie Palmer, who lived in the house for over 85 years and brought up her own family there. In 1912, David Parr inscribed ‘If you do anything, do it well’ on one wall of his home. If you come and visit this beautiful Cambridge house, you will be able to see for yourself how Elsie Palmer lived up to her grandfather’s motto.

Tours of the David Parr House tours begin on 18 February 2023 and can be booked via the website here. I’m delighted to be beginning work as a volunteer House Guide next month.

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