The intricate green and gold design of a wall in the drawing room at artisan decorator David Parr's House in Cambridge
The intricately designed pattern of the drawing room at David Parr House, Cambridge. © David Parr House
The intricately designed pattern of the drawing room at David Parr House, Cambridge. © David Parr House

Cambridge Home and Workplace of Unsung Artisan Decorator David Parr Listed

Two properties, the inspirational Cambridge home and workplace of unsung artisan decorator David Parr, have been listed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

Listed at Grade II*, 186 Gwydir Street, now a visitor attraction The David Parr House, was Parr’s home in Cambridge. 3 St Mary’s Passage, listed at Grade II, housed the showroom of F R Leach and Sons, a nationally-renowned firm of artistic workmen who employed David Parr.

David Parr House – listed at Grade II*

186 Gwydir Street appears in passing to be an ordinary mid-Victorian worker’s terraced house, if attention to the details hints that it might be more. Once through the front door, the interior is extraordinary.

In 1886, David Parr bought the house where he would spend the rest of his life with his wife Mary Jane and raise their three children Mary, David and Sarah. Over a period of 40 years, Parr transformed his family home, creating a work of art on walls and ceilings with all-over patterns adapted from schemes he painted for his employer F R Leach and Sons, inspired by the designs of renowned artist George Frederick Bodley (14 March 1827 – 21 October 1907) and adapted for a domestic setting. It is a very personal work incorporating Parr’s intertwining initials in the entrance hall pattern.

A prodigious talent

Parr’s dedication is matched by his prodigious talent: his painted decoration is meticulously detailed and executed to the highest standard. David Parr’s domestic painted interiors are an extraordinary and unique survival; nothing else like them is known to exist.

David Parr kept a notebook in which he carefully recorded the transformation of the house, providing an invaluable and comprehensive archive of the building.

His descendants lived in the house until 2013 and their respect for his artistic legacy resulted in very limited alterations to the property. Alongside the painted decoration, items of joinery designed and built by Parr also survive, alongside the original curtain rails, the late 19th century toilet and the 1920s oven, which provide an almost complete picture of a house of this period. The artistic significance of the house is considerably enhanced by its social historical interest. The recent conservation of the house, which was based on detailed research and carried out with scrupulous care, has ensured its ongoing preservation.

The house is a physical embodiment 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, their craft and its materials, a bond that had been destroyed by industrial manufacturing.

New innovative real-time digital tour

Historic England has also awarded a Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund Resilience Grant of £40,212 to enable David Parr House to develop its audience offer through the creation of an innovative pre-bookable real-time digital tour of the house and a new audio tour for socially-distanced visitors, delivered by the property’s knowledgeable volunteers. This will enable this intimate property to engage with a wider audience.

Book a real-time 3D tour of the David Parr House

The listing of David Parr House and 3 St Mary’s Passage gives due recognition to the unknown highly talented artists and craftsmen who brought to life the creative inspiration of celebrated designers. In supporting David Parr House to create a digital tour, we hope this extraordinary artistic masterpiece will be enjoyed by a much wider audience.

Tony Calladine, Regional Director Historic England

The work of artisans like David Parr has so far been overshadowed by the renown of the pioneering figures such as AWN Pugin (1 March 1812 – 14 September 1852), William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) and George Frederick Bodley (14 March 1827 – 21 October 1907), whose designs they brought to life. The survival and protection of the David Parr House is an important step in recognising their achievements.

3 St Mary’s Passage, Cambridge – listed at Grade II

Another important step in the celebration of these highly talented painters and craftsmen is the listing at Grade II of 3 St Mary’s Passage in Cambridge which, in the late-19th century, became the showroom of F R Leach and Sons, for whom David Parr worked.

Built in the neo-Jacobean style, 3 St Mary’s Passage demonstrates typical 17th century architectural features and beautifully-detailed pargetting embellishments. Its striking presence is remarkable as it is a narrow-fronted building dominated by taller neighbouring structures.

A showroom for renowned artistic workmen

Frederick Leach received the keys to 3 St Mary's Passage on 20 April 1880. Work to the new premises was carried out externally and internally: a signature line of fleur-de-lys in raised plasterwork is shown on the façade of the showroom and the fireplace on the west wall of the first floor was installed by Leach and incorporates tiles decorated by his firm.

The company worked 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.

Between 1871 and 1881, as the census shows, F R Leach and Sons more than doubled its workforce to meet growing demand for their intricately detailed and high quality interiors.

They carried out some impressive commissions, such as working with William Morris on the staircase of St James’ Palace in London. The firm’s trade cards and accounts book reveal that its reputation spread far and wide.

Evidence of creativity

Evidence of their creativity as artists survives in ecclesiastical buildings throughout Cambridge and the country as a whole but examples of their domestic work have virtually disappeared as later fashions replaced the Gothic revival designs.

In Cambridge, F R Leach and Sons collaborated with George Bodley at All Saints’ Church, although most of the wall painting was done free of charge by Frederick himself. Other examples of work carried out by his team of craftsmen throughout Cambridge include 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.

Three of Frederick’s sons – Barnett, Frederick and Walter – continued the family business as artist-craftsmen, but financial difficulties during the First World War led to the company being placed into liquidation in 1916. The building was acquired by King’s College Cambridge in 1936. It currently operates as a shop.