When is a home a work of art? In Cambridge we are fortunate to have at least two examples of houses which fit that description: Kettles Yard, “a masterpiece of curatorship”, and the David Parr House, an unprepossessing terraced cottage with an extraordinary interior. The front room of the latter is shown above.
David Parr (1854-1927) liked to call this the Drawing Room, perhaps a rather grand title for a room no more than a few metres wide. He was nothing if not house proud, but he had every right to be. Born into a working class family, David Parr had an inauspicious start. His mother died when he was six and his father was a ne’er do well, charged at times with theft and child cruelty. David's break came when, at the age of 17, he was taken on as an apprentice to FR Leach, a Cambridge firm of artisan decorators working with the leading designers of the day, including Charles Kempe, George Bodley and William Morris. Parr went on to become one of Leach’s best craftsmen, working on commissions from Scotland to the Isle of Wight including St James’ Palace and, closer to home, All Saints’ Church, Cambridge. By 1886 he had enough financial security to buy his own home and for the next forty years he set about transforming his small house into his own personal palace with hand painted wall decorations and many other embellishments.
David Parr seems to have taken on board William Morris’s famous maxim: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Every detail of the design, each swirling leaf and abundant flower reveal the skill and dexterity of the painter’s hand and his desire to create beauty in his modest family home. While the rich could employ William Morris to redesign their houses, David Parr was talented and determined enough to do it himself. It is an astonishing achievement. What is equally astonishing is that his artistry was preserved almost intact by his granddaughter, Elsie Palmer, who lived in the house for over 80 years after her grandfather died. In a final piece of serendipity, the house was then able to be bought and conserved by the David Parr House Trust.
As we admire David Parr’s Drawing Room decoration, the words of the popular Victorian verse that he inscribed on the upper text scroll seem particularly apt for today - ‘Swiftly see each moment flies, see and learn be timely wise …. seize the moments as they fly, know to live and learn to die.’ David Parr certainly ‘seized the moments’ to create a unique work of art that was his home.
Above: front room of the David Parr House showing his hand painted wall decorations, family photos and Elsie's sofa, 186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge; below: detail of the text scroll on the wall decoration © David Parr House.
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the recent Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.