David Parr House
184-186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge, CB1 2LW
Blink and you’ll miss the David Parr House. Located at 186, Gwydir Street, the humble terraced house, opposite Hot Numbers Coffee, looks like any other house in the row. But step inside and you find a truly remarkable hidden treasure – a time capsule of the Arts & Crafts era and a portal into the life of a working man in Victorian times. Over 40 years David Parr, a working-class artist – employed by renowned Cambridge decorative arts company F R Leach & Sons – painted the walls of his abode in the style of the grand interiors he worked on every day. The result is breathtaking; walls and ceilings embellished with complex patterns of interwoven foliage and flowers, ornamental scroll motifs inscribed with quotes in bold Gothic script, magnificent carved wood cornicing and grandiose lincrustra detailing. His work with Frederick Leach on the country’s finest houses and churches, from St James’s Palace to Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, brought David Parr into contact with eminent architects and designers, including William Morris, George Bodley and Charles Kempe, and their influence is everywhere in the tiny terraced property.
In fact, when Tamsin Wimhurst first visited the house, back in 2009 – then the home of David Parr’s granddaughter, Elsie Palmer – she initially thought the walls were covered in William Morris wallpaper. But Elsie, who had moved there in 1927 after David Parr’s death – and stayed for 85 years – told Tamsin about her grandfather’s extraordinary handpainted legacy. Tamsin was determined this masterpiece should be saved, and so began an epic conservation project, which has seen independent businesses, local artisans, dedicated volunteers, plus the Leach and Palmer families, pitch in. As a supporter of the Arts & Crafts movement – itself a reaction to big business – David Parr would surely have approved of this.
Tamsin and husband Mike bought the house in 2013 and gifted it to the charity they set up.
Finding rain pouring through the roof, they soon realised the enormity of the project. In 2017, with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, restoration work began. Five thousand items were catalogued and cleaned, and more than 50 volunteers offered their expertise, from local architects, curators and wall paint conservators, to floor specialists, builders and photographers. Due to the fragility of the house, visitor numbers are capped at 2000 per year. Please visit the website for details of opening times, virtual tours and events.
There’s still much hidden beneath the walls of 186, Gwydir Street – patterns that were painted over, but require true specialists to uncover – so the David Parr House has many more secrets to reveal in years to come. How intriguing.