186 Gwydir Street looks like a typical Cambridge terraced house from the outside. But when you walk in through the front door, you leave the 21st century behind and enter the world of Victorian decorative artist David Parr.
David bought the house at auction in 1886 and lived there with his wife, Mary, and their three children. He’d been apprenticed at the age of 17 to the Cambridge firm of artworkmen F. R. Leach & Sons and he worked for them all his life, painting grand houses and churches with designs created by luminaries of the Arts and Crafts movement, including William Morris. After long days at work, David came home to decorate his house in the same style, painting by oil and candlelight during the evenings and creating intricate interiors in this relatively humble abode.
The exquisite decoration incorporates the use of cut out stencils, through which he stippled paint, and pin prick stencil work, all with individualised repeats which bring the designs alive. Pine doors and matchboarding are painted and grained to resemble more expensive woods. The main bedroom boasts an early version of hot air heating. David was bringing back ideas and sometimes left over materials from jobs he worked on to create a beautiful, unique home for his family.
After David’s death in 1927, his widow continued to live in the house with grand daughter Elsie who, in turn, married and brought up her two daughters there. The decor of the house remained unchanged through the generations but the family was very private and almost nobody knew about these wonderful interiors. Tamsin Wimhurst first saw the house in 2009 after she put out a call for interesting spaces in Cambridge while researching for an exhibition she was organising at the Museum of Cambridge. Elsie told Tamsin the story of her grandfather and the house, proud now to show off David Parr’s work. After Elsie died in 2013, aged 98, Tamsin and her husband decided to buy the house to conserve and restore it.
The programme of conservation and restoration has been painstaking. Happily, David Parr had logged everything he did to the house room by room and all the changes he made, both inside and outside. Family furniture, artefacts and textiles fill the house. It really does have the feeling of a home where the family has just stepped out for a while. On the day I visited, volunteers were busy landscaping and replanting the back garden as it is remembered by David Parr’s great grand daughters, both of whom still live locally.
David Parr House reopens on 16 May. For conservation reasons, tour places are limited at present as the team carefully monitors and assesses the multiple effects of visitor traffic on the painting and general fabric of the house. The scheduled house tours for this year are now sold out but it is still possible to book a private tour. Over the next two years, income from tours will be matched by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the proceeds will go into an endowment, the interest from which will fund a Curator post.
I was absolutely captivated by David Parr House. The care and skill that has gone in to this beautiful place, both from its creator and the team that has ensured its future, is awe-inspiring. For more on the story of the house and the family, volunteering opportunities and tour reservations, take a look at the website.