An otherwise ordinary Victorian terrace house conceals within a Cathedral of decoration. This is David Parr House, after the man who spent a lifetime decorating it — and yet, it’s the tale of two generations, the painter and his granddaughter who preserved it.
David Parr was a decent arts and craftsman working for a local firm of religious decorators, F R Leach & Sons and spent an otherwise fairly unremarkable life and without his domestic delight, might be essentially forgotten, barely known even in family history.
David’s link with Leach seems to have been slightly more than just employer/employee though as there are references suggesting high regard at Leach for David’s skills. The firm also moved in exalted circles, bringing them into contact with the likes of William Morris, George Gilbert Scott Jnr and gothic revivalist George Bodley.
David was, however, more than just a decorator, he did things differently. At a time of renting, he managed to buy his home. At a time of outdoor toilets and cooking on an open fire, he installed an indoor loo and an iron range over the fireplace.
And he decorated his home.
He lived in the home his entire adult life, with four children, and following his death in 1927, one of his granddaughters, Elsie Palmer came to live here, looking after her grandmother, and she remained for the rest of her life.
She also preserved the decorations, and as a private lady, she rarely let anyone into her home, so very few people knew what lay behind the anonymous door in a Victorian terrace.
One person was let in though, towards the end of her long duty as custodian of the house – the curator of a local museum.
An exhibition was being staged of local private spaces and she was tipped off that the house was something special. So Tamsin Wimhurst from the Folk Museum turned up one day, not knowing what was here, knocked on the door — and she must have been persuasive, as she was let inside, and she realised that this house had to be saved.
Elsie had to move out a few years later to a care home and died very shortly afterwards.
Plans were put in place to save the house. They needed to buy the house first and then raised money for conservation works – mostly to deal with pervasive damp problems that had been an issue ever since the house was built.
A lot of coincidences have hit this house – that it was bought not rented by a man who wanted to decorate it so richly. That his granddaughter then preserved so much of it. That a museum curator was able to visit one day.
And during the conservation works, an idea to have a meeting room in the back garden changed dramatically when the neighbouring house came up for sale.
Public tours of the house started earlier this year, and if you turn up one day to a door marked David Parr House, you will walk into — not David Parr House, but the reception house next door.
Very cleanly decorated itself in a modern hotel-like style, artefacts from the Leach and Sons are on show, and space at the back for more educational groups to use. And here, two tour guides in workers aprons give a talk about the family before we leave to go next door.
The transformation is sudden and dramatic, from the bright white modern decoration into a dark grotto of Victorian anglo-catholic gothic delights.
Photos are not allowed, and frankly, with everyone wanting a photo of each room it would be exceptionally difficult to arrange that in the small house. All internal photos in this article are by David Parr House.
One thing that photos cannot convey is a sense of very Victorian claustrophobia. Victorian houses had many small rooms packed with decorations and lots of doors and walls breaking up the house into tiny compartments.
Then there’s the smell. An old smell of old times and pervasive throughout the house. Oddly, it reminded me of days spent stuck in the back of my parents tiny MG sports car with a mix of petrol and leather blending into travel-sickness delight.
Into the front room, and just soak in the atmosphere for a while. Eyes are drawn heavenward to the ceiling with its rich painting, then slowly unwillingly pulled down to the walls, and the scroll of sayings running around the room.
The painting was done in stages, probably around the realities of a family home – with the ceiling and coving done first, then seemingly after a long gap the walls down to the floor.
David Parr was painting in a style suitable for a large church, where the paintwork was not seen close up, so meticulous accuracy was less important than the overall effect. Here, close up he was clever. Glitter was added to the larger panels of solid colour so that in the candlelit (they didn’t have gas at first), the walls sparkled in the evenings.
The designs on the walls show clear influences, and William Morris’s patterns have been identified in places. Unlike Morris though, who tried to combine craftsmanship with a modest industrial process to bring decoration to the middle-classes, such as block print wallpapers — here David painted everything himself, by hand.
That also gives the decoration some dynamism that wallpaper with its uniformity lacks. Did the flowers in one room change from closed to slightly open for a reason, change of taste, slip of the hand. We will probably never know, but that’s also part of the delight of the spaces, that they are blocks of pattern, with hidden secrets to discover.
He could have put up a room of William Morris wallpaper in a weekend, and I doubt anyone would have criticised him for it, but he laid plain paper and painted everything. Lower down, closer to the furniture, and children, he painted onto canvas.
The gloomy colours which seem to Victorian to our eyes are the gloom of years of smoke, gas lamps, and old varnish coatings. When David lived here, it was bright and vibrant, with strong colours to the glory of God.
A Christmas tree is on the mantlepiece, as Elsie felt that the birth of Christ was so important to her deeply held faith that it should be celebrated every day of the year. That deep religious convection may also be part of why she loved the house so much, with walls covered in a church-like decoration.
The hallway used to be floor to ceiling decorated, but it was too dark, and Elsie and her husband Alfred painted the top half a pale colour to bring light into the hallway. It’s to the credit of the conservators that they didn’t seek to undo Elsie’s work – as this is as much her home as it was her grandfathers. And frankly, it looks better like this.
A kitchen at the back has modest upgrades — a cooker from the 1960s, there’s an old washing machine, the Victorian hot water tub has gone. Cupboards are full of old things, the windows are decorated with stained glass and cast dancing beams of light around the place.
Upstairs, what would have been the main bedroom was chopped into two for the children, while the parents took the other room — and look for the odd-looking metal pipe sticking out incongruously from the gothic decorations. An early warm air heater for the room.
There’s a simple Tudor effect decoration on the ceiling, but the first floor is very much a make do and mend and how to fit so many people into so small a space, while keeping the decoration rich.
The back bedroom is now a 1950s bathroom, looking ancient to new eyes, but shockingly modern after an hour soaking up the Victorian miasma below.
And that is the delight of David Parr house — a visit is not to get lost in intricate details of a master craftsman, for David was good, but not a master – this is a house that is a labour of Christian love. Total immersion of faith that soaked into the walls with a rich decoration that overwhelms the senses in an utterly delightful manner.
David Parr house is possible incorrectly named – it’s David and Elsie’s house — what you see is conservation of David’s decoration, and Elsie’s necessary amendments to be able to live there for so many decades.
In doing so, she preserved something that could so easily have been lost under the harsh modernizing glare of 1960s plywood and the hatred of Victorian fustiness. She saved something warm, rich, comforting.
Kept deeply private for a century, this hidden time capsule of Victorian life is now occasionally open to the public. A maximum of 2,000 people per year will be allowed inside, as there’s limited space for more.
In a way that makes a visit even more special, to know that so few other people will ever get to see inside David Parr’s house.
Tours for 2019 are fully booked, but if you drop them an email they’ll let you know when 2020 tours are possible.
Location map and local interesting places
- 5] Our Lady of The Assumption and The English Martyrs
- 6] St Andrew's Street Baptist Church
- 7] Great St Mary's
- 8] Little St Mary's
- 9] St Botolph's Parish Church
- 10] St Clement's Cambridge
- 11] St Giles with St Peter
- 12] The Round Church
- 14] Anglesey Abbey, Gardens and Lode Mill
- 15] Wimpole Estate
- 16] Wicken Fen Nature Reserve
- 17] Houghton Mill and Waterclose Meadows