Haircuts, Collars & Colours

Transcribing the Diaries & notebooks of FR Leach

“The best furnishings are at All Saints: stained glass and exceptionally rich all-over painted decoration by the William Morris firm and its local follower, Frederick Leach.” [Pevsner’s Cambridge]

David Parr worked for Frederick Leach’s Cambridge firm of master decorators and, as can be seen in the David Parr House, must have been heavily influenced by the methods and style of his employer – enough to take his day job home with him and apply his skills to the fabric of his own house.

Having offered some time to Tamsin at the David Parr House, she put me in contact with Shelley Lockwood who has access to a collection of handwritten diaries and notebooks which she needed to be transcribed in order to gain insight into the working practices of the FR Leach firm. Having been taken on a tour of the David Parr House by Shelley, I felt keen and ready to begin the task ahead: reading scans of the documents and transcribing them into a typed and accessible format. I must confess that I was a little naïve about the magnitude and complexity of the task…

The diaries document the day to day tasks and expenses of a man travelling locally and further afield, gaining experience and knowledge of his craft, managing his workers, meeting clients as well as meeting and assisting such craftsmen of the time as William Morris. Both Jesus College and All Saints Church show evidence of the hand of Fred and his team under the tutelage and supervision of Morris. When you visit just these two local examples of the work, you encounter the breathtaking beauty of hand painted wall decoration, realised through great perseverance and skill.

I think it is the juxtaposition of such achievements with the daily records presented in the diaries and notebooks that makes the task of transcribing challenging. I want to discover the creative process behind the decorative works but the documents are more complex – a record of a working life – so Fred has his haircut, buys new collars, purchases daily provisions including “Beer for men” as well as writing “Colors (sic) used B Umber Green Chrome Blue Vert B Sienna”; he then writes daily when he is away to his wife Mary Ann, friends and clients and you realise that he is communicating with William Morris but it is just slipped into the daily record:
Rec’d cheque 39.12.0 Morris sent rect to Dº & wrote to ma 2£ cheque

There have been times when I have called upon Shelley’s knowledge and experience to assist me – we meet on a regular basis to discuss what I have completed – in particular a moment when I could proceed no further as Fred had started a new system in 1867…I envisage he did this as a way of making a to-do list and crossing out items that were completed; for me that meant his hard to read pencil handwriting became illegible as he quite emphatically crossed through each item. Shelley’s calm manner pointed me to the legible letters and encouraged me to build on those to make sense of the words and phrases. I have to confess there are still some question marks where I haven’t quite understood!

The best moment for me so far was discovering in the 1867 Notebook Fred’s sketch of the Fairford Angel in a church in Gloucestershire which he executed on one of his many trips around the country. This is shown below alongside a photo of the original wall painting where you can see his skill in celebrating the original by representing the figure in a vivid and naturalistic way.
I look forward to more occasions like this when the extraordinary leaps off the page hidden within ordinary lists, facts and figures.
Julie Stephenson

FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos