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Arts and Crafts in Cambridge
“The David Parr house is an ordinary Cambridge terrace house containing an extraordinary secret world – an art and craft workers house with stories to tell.”
If you know Cambridge, then the chances are you know Mill Road. It is a vibrant mile long stretch just a short walk away from the famous city centre, that features quirky shops, fabulous independent cafes and restaurants, and even a microbrewery. Every December it hosts a famous Winter Fair and it offers an edgy exciting alternative to the usual tourist haunts. If you venture off the main road, then you encounter row after of row of typical Victorian terrace housing.
Until the Victorian era, this area of Cambridge was primarily open countryside, but it all changed with the arrival of the railway in 1845 when the surrounding land became ripe for development. Houses, shops, schools, pubs, workhouses, hospitals and cemeteries grew up creating a diverse and vibrant neighbourhood distinct from the university, with a mixture of both middle and working class housing. Artisan’s houses could be distinguished by their front gardens and entrance halls, whereas the living rooms in the homes of the working classes opened straight out onto the terraced streets.
The Artisans’ houses were often more than just homes and it was not unusual for residents to conduct their businesses from the premises. Many of the houses had workspaces in the form of garden workshops and outhouses where carpenters, milliners, shoemakers, tailors, printers, dressmakers and painters all would work their trade.
In 1887 David Parr moved into one of these tiny two bedroomed artisans’ homes on Gwydir Street just off Mill Road. Parr was a working-class decorative artist who worked for the Cambridge firm of master decorators F R Leach and Sons. He learned his skills painting houses and churches using the designs of some of the best Arts and Crafts architects and designers of the era, including William Morris. Over the next 40 years, working mostly at night by candlelight, David Parr decorated his own modest home in the style of the grand interiors he was working on.
Filled with hand painted wallpaper, decorative tiles, handcrafted furniture and decorative glass windows, his house became a pattern book of Arts and Crafts master designs. He inscribed onto his walls the words “If you do anything, do it well” and his uniquely decorated house is a testament to this and to the values of the Arts and Crafts movement.
When David Parr died in 1927, his widow Mary Jane and his young granddaughter Elsie Palmer remained in the house, maintaining it in its original state. Elsie lived there throughout her marriage to Alfred where they raised their two daughters until her death aged 97 in 2014. She preserved her grandfather’s work on the house leaving it mostly unchanged but added her own vibrant mark in the form of the many objects and artefacts that can still be seen in the house today, such as her coat hanging in the hall and the mangle in the kitchen.
Elsie’s Crimplene ‘best’ coat, still hanging in the hall
In 2009 Tamsin Wimhurst, a social historian, first saw the house whist curating an exhibition on private spaces for the Museum of Cambridge and knew immediately she had discovered something unique and special, but the problem was how it could be preserved. Along with her husband, she purchased the house in 2014 and then set up a charity to conserve the building and its content with a view to opening it up to the public. The challenges were many and required the skills of numerous specialist workers and volunteers who worked on the tiny and fragile interior. From initially fixing the leaking roof, thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the house underwent a full program of restoration and conservation. Tamsin was told early on that
“You have all the issues of a stately home but on a much smaller scale and that does not make it any easier”
Windows were secured, drains repaired, walls repointed while all the time preserving the interior walls and their decoration. Five thousand individual items were removed, cleaned and catalogued before being returned to the house and there was even an archaeological dig in the back garden.
The house opened to the public in May 2019 and limited numbers of visitors can now book timed guided tours.
Until a few weeks ago I was completely unaware of its existence, but it came to my notice when I spotted an exhibition “House Guests: Textile Artists in David Parr House”. This is the first in what is hoped to be a series of creative interventions inviting contemporary artists and makers to respond to the house and its contents. Artists Emily Campbell, Fiona Curran, Shelley Goldsmith, Tanvi Kant, Rachael Matthew, Richard McVetis, Beatrice Mayfield and Anya Paintsil are the first group of artists to be invited and they all use textile materials and processes as their medium.
I visited the house on the final day of the exhibition. On the usual tours, visitors are carefully guided around the house and photography is not allowed but for the duration of the exhibition we could wander and explore freely and we were allowed to take photographs, which felt like a real treat. I’ll be absolutely honest and say I was a little underwhelmed by the textile exhibition and struggled at times to follow how the work had been a response to the house and its contents. The artists’ statements left me none the wiser. The printed guide claims the use of textiles enables the artists to shine a light on Parr’s wife Mary Jane and her presence in the house. Unfortunately, I think this presence felt non-existent aside from a single sewing bag left discarded on a chair in the dining room and there was no connection at all to the contemporary textile work. As it happens there is very little known about Mary Jane Parr and the only information offered was that before her marriage she worked as a ‘doubler’, working from home spinning thread into new yarn, so this idea of shining a light on her life felt a little contrived.
Mary Jane’s sewing bag
Despite that some of the work was enchanting and I particularly like the small brooches made by Beatrice Mayfield that were hanging in the spare bedroom, echoing the patterns on the bedroom wall and referencing the many brooches worn by Elsie Palmer (although not Mary Jane!)
Brooch by Beatrice Mayfield
Aside from the exhibition being a little disappointing The David Parr House is an absolute delight and well worth a visit if you are in the Cambridge area. I found there was so much to take in and see with surfaces everywhere covered with intricate hand painted designs that were completed over many years. The house is full to the brim with knickknacks and keepsakes, photographs and needlework which tell the fascinating story of David Parr and his family over the generations that have lived there. I’m looking forward to returning soon for a guided tour to learn more about the history and the stories behind this fascinating little house, a hidden gem in the city of Cambridge.
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